In Nova Scotia, a thriv­ing lob­ster in­dus­try buoys boat builders

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - ERIN ANDERSSEN WEDGEPORT, N.S.

Anewly fin­ished lob­ster fish­ing boat waits on a trailer in a yard at Wedgeport Boats, like a dis­placed sea crea­ture ready to re­turn. The Porsche-red hull gleams in the Nova Scotia sun. Stand­ing on the ground in its shadow, the ves­sel’s owner, Mark Rogers, watches with sat­is­fac­tion as the vinyl sticker – the kind used for race cars – is ap­plied to the bow, re­veal­ing a mus­cled, smil­ing car­toon lob­ster.

It’s the af­ter­noon be­fore the of­fi­cial launch of the Katie Anne – named, ac­cord­ing to cus­tom, for Mr. Rogers’s now-grown daugh­ter. The launch has been planned for a Fri­day, which, as griz­zled fish­er­men will say, is tra­di­tion­ally a day best avoided for a new voy­age. But Mr. Rogers fig­ures he’s bal­anced those odds: A priest is com­ing to de­liver a bless­ing with holy wa­ter and, al­though he isn’t Ro­man Catholic, he’s ac­cepted a rosary – once owned by a nun – to hang in the cock­pit of the boat, just for luck.

“I would rather have God with me than against me,” he quips. “I can get in enough trou­ble on my own.”

But for­tune is al­ready smil­ing on East Coast lob­ster fish­er­men and boat builders alike, thanks to a thriv­ing lob­ster fish­ery, fu­elled by a strong global mar­ket, abun­dant catch and a low dol­lar.

Fish­er­men with older boats have been flip­ping them at prices high enough to make trad­ing up pos­si­ble, in­vest­ing in ves­sels with larger holds so they can stay out at sea longer and swishier ac­com­mo­da­tion for the crew. In the past five years, ac­cord­ing to the Nova Scotia Boat Builders As­so­ci­a­tion, sales for new builds and re­pairs in the prov­ince have more than dou­bled – to $110-mil­lion in 2018.

When Fraser Chal­loner and his part­ner, Skip Muise, first be­came co-own­ers of Wedgeport Boats in 2008, they were lay­ing off work­ers for months at a time al­most ev­ery year, an es­pe­cially hard call in a small fish­ing vil­lage such as Wedgeport, lo­cated on the south­west­ern tip of the prov­ince, about 300 kilo­me­tres from Hal­i­fax. But, as busi­ness be­gan to pick up, the com­pany, one of about 60 in Nova Scotia, ex­panded to a new prop­erty and added build­ings. Now Mr. Chal­loner, the gen­eral man­ager, is book­ing con­tracts into 2021.

So it’s a good day at Wedgeport Boats, and not only be­cause there’s a cool wind to cut the af­ter­noon heat. Not count­ing the fleet on land for serv­ing or retrofitti­ng, there are six boats in var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion – a hull with its ribs still show­ing in one bay; work­ers fi­bre­glass­ing a nearly fin­ished hull in an­other. In one bay, a boat is be­ing worked on by an­other builder.

“We’re so busy,” Mr. Chal­loner says, “we can give work away.”

But ev­ery boom has its com­pli­ca­tions, es­pe­cially when your work is tied to an in­dus­try fa­mous for glory-day highs and dev­as­tat­ing lows.

For one thing, as Jan Fuller­ton, the boat­build­ing as­so­ci­a­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, points out, yards are hav­ing trou­ble finding skilled work­ers to han­dle all the busi­ness on of­fer right now. That’s meant some poach­ing be­tween yards, but also a new fo­cus on ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams to at­tract young Nova Sco­tians into the trade, or bring in skilled work­ers from other coun­tries.

At Wedgeport, one of the welders who worked on the Katie Anne is Si­mon An, a 21year-old from South Korea who grad­u­ated re­cently from Nova Scotia Com­mu­nity Col­lege and is hop­ing to re­ceive his per­ma­nent res­i­dency in Canada with help from the Wedgeport yard and a pro­vin­cial im­mi­gra­tion pro­gram.

Mr. Chal­loner says that while the yard doesn’t strug­gle to keep work­ers, “we have an aging crew,” and not enough cer­ti­fied boat builders com­ing up be­hind them. But yards also have to be care­ful about the size of their work force, he says, given that the cur­rent run of con­tracts isn’t likely to last. The Wedgeport yard is al­ready plan­ning ahead, ex­pand­ing its fo­cus to ser­vic­ing, re­pairs and Trans­port Canada in­spec­tions, as well as a line of or­ders for fi­bre­glass fish­ing boats for a salmon aqua­cul­ture com­pany, Mr Chal­loner says.

When you live off the ocean, you learn fast that what the tides brings in, it also takes out. But for now, and on this day es­pe­cially, busi­ness is bright.

Once the Katie Anne is launched, the next boat in line be­longs to Camille Jacquard, who is also milling around to­day, Tim Hor­tons cup in hand, pon­der­ing the de­sign of his trim paint. The name is de­cided: Pe­lagic Preda­tor. His boat will be de­signed to “wash, rinse and re­peat,” as Mr. Chal­loner puts it, to fish lob­ster, tuna and sword­fish. But ask Mr. Jacquard, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fish­er­man, what he’s most ex­cited about, and he says: “the comfort.”

Right now, the cock­pit and gal­ley are only framed in, but once it’s done, like the Katie Anne, it will have a full kitchen, an en­ter­tain­ment sys­tem and a small bath­room with a shower.

“You’ve heard of glamping?” jokes Ron Ward, a sales rep with At­lantic Elec­tron­ics who is here to over­see some fi­nal tests on the Katie Anne. “Well, this is glam­our fish­ing.”

Not so glam­orous: As a Globe and Mail in­ves­ti­ga­tion found in 2017, com­mer­cial fish­ing is the most dan­ger­ous sec­tor in Canada.

But an­other perk of the boom is that the fleet up­grade will also come with the lat­est safety equip­ment and tech­nol­ogy. The Katie Anne, for in­stance, is equipped with sonar that can scan the shape of ob­jects on the ocean floor, to as­sist with sal­vaging.

The next day, the launch goes smoothly. With the yard still quiet to avoid dis­trac­tions, Mr. Muise, who as pro­duc­tion man­ager over­sees the con­struc­tion side of the busi­ness, care­fully backs the Katie Anne down to the wa­ter – the trick­i­est part of the launch, ev­ery­one agrees, no mat­ter how many times you’ve done it. The prayers are de­liv­ered and bless­ings be­stowed, and Katie Anne her­self smashes the cel­e­bra­tory bot­tle of cham­pagne on the hull of her name­sake.

The Katie Anne will then go through fur­ther test­ing and sea tri­als in Au­gust, be­fore head­ing to her home port of Saint John. Mean­while, the next job calls.

“In my head,” Mr. Muise says, “it’s on to the next boat.” Which is an­other rea­son to cel­e­brate.

Top: Wedgeport Boats, one of about 60 boat mak­ers in Nova Scotia, is lo­cated in a small fish­ing vil­lage on the south­west­ern tip of the prov­ince.

PHO­TOS BY AN­DREW TOLSON/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Left: There are six boats in var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion at the Wedgeport yard, and gen­eral man­ager Fraser Chal­loner is book­ing con­tracts into 2021.

Above: A worker ap­plies a de­cal of a mus­cled, smil­ing car­toon lob­ster to the red hull of the Katie Anne, Wedgeport Boat’s lat­est com­pleted ves­sel.

Thanks to a flour­ish­ing lob­ster in­dus­try, busi­ness is go­ing well at boat yards such as Wedgeport, be­low. But ev­ery boom has com­pli­ca­tions. For in­stance, yards are hav­ing trou­ble finding skilled work­ers to han­dle all the con­tracts on of­fer right now.

Si­mon An, a 21-year-old from South Korea, works as a welder at Wedgeport. He’s hop­ing to get his per­ma­nent res­i­dency through the yard and a pro­vin­cial im­mi­gra­tion pro­gram.

Af­ter haul­ing it into the ship­yard, worker Der­rick Rid­dell, left, and Wedgeport Boats co-owner Skip Muise pre­pare a boat for main­te­nance.

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