Industry players forecasting uncertain year for province’s main fishery
There’s another storm brewing in the province’s troubled fishing industry, and one of the victims could be the crucial snow crab harvest.
The upcoming 2010 harvest is being buffeted by a litany of problems, with some major players saying a timely start to the fishery is unlikely. A complete shutdown is also not out of the question, some say.
The province’s fisheries minister, however, is not quite as demoralized. Hanging in the balance is this province’s most important fishery, which largely sustains about 3,000 fishing enterprises and at least 30 fish processing plants.
Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers’ union (FFAW) said “I think we’ll be seriously challenged to get a price that makes sense for people to go fishing.”
Mr. McCurdy recalled prices were not sustainable last year, and conditions do not seem to have improved for this season.
The head of the province’s association of seafood producers is doubtful the industry, in its current form, can survive the double-barreled threat posed by deteriorating markets and weak currency exchange rates.
Derek Butler said the inflexibility being demonstrated by the fisheries union is also a factor.
At its annual convention last fall, union delegates passed a motion saying they would not fish crab for less than a $1.50 per pound. They also set a minimum price of 60 cents for shrimp.
Prices last season ranged from a high of $1.55 to a low of $1.35.
Mr. Butler said such intransigence is “completely divorced from reality” and suggested there would not be a fishery under those terms. He said fishermen in Alaska are being paid as low as US$1.10 for “ bigger, better” crab.
“Right now there’s no reason to be optimistic about a fishery on a timely basis given the contention of the FFAW and harvesters this far in advance.”
But Mr. McCurdy said there’s only so far fishermen can go before they hit an economic breaking point. He said operating expenses are enormous.
“Continuously dropping the price of raw materials to solve our problem is not the answer.”
Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman said it’s premature to be writing an obituary on this year’s crab harvest. He said early indicators point to a stronger season, and said it’s important to maintain a positive mindset.
But he acknowledged the global economic downturn and a Canadian dollar that’s nearly on par with US currency are troubling factors.
“Our hope is that the 2010 season will open on time, recognizing there will be some factors that will continue to impact the state of the fishery.”
John Sackton, a seafood marketing analyst based in Massachusetts, also reported mixed results when examining the 2010 snow crab fishery. He’s heard reports of large inventories of crab carried over from last year in Asia, and there are indications the Japanese demand for crab is on the wane.
But in the U.S. market, Mr. Sackton sees signs of a recovery, especially for large-size snow crab.
“It is very difficult to get a feel for what the market is going to be like this spring.”
The uncertainty was expected to all come to a head Friday, when Mr. McCurdy and Mr. Butler meet with the fisheries minister for a much-anticipated discussion about plans to restructure the industry.
Mr. McCurdy and Mr. Butler both confirmed Wednesday they will be toting proposals for the minister to consider as part of a memorandum of understanding reached between the groups last year.
Mr. McCurdy has been talking of the need for a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to marketing the province’s seafood products, while Mr. Butler has zeroed in on the need to streamline the harvesting and processing sectors.
He likes to compare the problems in the fishing industry to a recent streamlining at General Motors, formerly the world’s largest automaker. GM was forced to cast off several well-known brands in order to avoid bankruptcy.
Mr. Butler believes a similar pruning is needed in the Newfoundland fishery. It will be a bitter pill for some communities, but “ That’s the reality of the world.”
And unless there are major changes in the markets and currency in the coming weeks, Mr. Butler said the crab fishery will not generate enough revenue to support the industry in its current form. He said major changes are needed as soon as possible.
Mr. Jackman plans to forward the proposals to a special steering committee for further study. But he insisted they won’t gather dust.
“I will not sit on this. I want to see what it is and will provide reaction as soon as I can.”