Dailies: May 9, 2013
Many problems face the economic sustainability of the communities we have visited so far on our trip. We have been continually impressed by the resilience and cooperation and hospitality shown in these small towns and villages, but we can’t ignore the clear fact that many places are in trouble. It’s an often-told story and one that certainly won’t end with us, but the changing of the times drives people from the country to the cities at an ever increasing rate. Most significantly, a huge demographic shift is looming as the 18-35 age group leaves in search of work, and it is quite apparent that the old ways of making a living don’t cut it any more. Finding the root cause of this situation is a nebulous quest to say the least, but signs point to the consolidation of small agricultural operations into large conglomerates and trade deals that keep commodities prices disproportionately low. But I should say that I am no economist.
As “luck” would have it, this issue has come to a head right in front of our eyes in the small town of Tignish, Prince Edward Island. In case we haven’t said it already, Tignish is a 200-year-old small fishing town on the Island’s northwestern tip. The primary catch is lobster, although they do also fish some mackerel and tuna (the cod fishery closed years ago). It has historically been a semi-lucrative and sustainable career: a fisherman with his own boat could clear as much as $60,000 in a two month season after paying his men. Some around here fish at least two seasons per year, sometimes more, and it’s not hard to keep a family going on that kind of income even with setting aside some for inevitable repairs.
But the last couple of years have seen major flux in the lobster fishery. For whatever reason, the North Atlantic has seen incredible growth in the lobster population, and traps are yielding more than ever. While this seems like a good thing in some respects, it has proven nettlesome for the families who live off of this industry as prices have crashed through the floor. Last year, fishermen in PEI came to near-violent confrontations with shippers and processors who were importing $2/lb. lobster from Maine as opposed to paying for the Canadian product. Down from $4/lb in the Spring season of 2012, lobster sold for $2.50/lb in the fall. Things haven’t changed much this year, with Tignish crews getting $2.75/lb and no one on the Island making over $3.50/lb. And yesterday, the Fishermen’s Association decided they were fed up. The normally busy harbours that mark the over 1,000 km of coastline here woke up to an uneasy stillness: fishermen all over the Island had decided to tie up their boats in protest.
Labour action, particularly in Canada, is not normally something to get excited about. A highly organized workforce more or less guarantees that strikes occur on a fairly regular basis. But the fishermen’s strike here is actually quite atypical: certainly, no one can ever remember an island-wide strike, and most are pretty sure that they’ve never even heard of it happening. People with 30, 40, 50 years of experience are all off the water today for the first time ever. The timing makes the events all the more severe as today was the ninth day of the Spring season, and the catches have been quite plentiful so far. But at the same time, the fishermen know that they cannot live on the price set this week. While they are catching 1,000lb/day at the start of the season things are okay, but they will soon start to lose money if the catches dip down below 600lb/day. One man I spoke two added it up: $250/day for fuel, $200-$300/day for bait, $300/day for labour, adds up to about $800 for one day just to go pull the traps in. As another man put it, “We’re not gonna go fish to throw money away.” They can’t stay tied up for too long, though, because the traps are set and penalties are imposed on any fisherman who leaves his gear unattended for over 72 hours. The lobsters will start to fill up and eat each other in short order. “Two days is too much,” as they say.
Despite that, tomorrow looks to be another day of widespread labour action by fishermen here in PEI and elsewhere in the Maritimes. Today, harbours shut down through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and rumour has it that no one will fish in Atlantic Canada tomorrow at all in solidarity with the Island fishermen. I’m not a statistician, otherwise I would do the number crunching, but this has to represent millions of dollars in lost product and labour. The confusing variable that we have as of yet been unable to figure out is where the price change is going to come from. Unlike Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and PEI have no government-mandated minimum pricing (although it’s pretty clear that the desire is present for something like that to ultimately be introduced). The buyers are decentralized, and while the Tignish fishermen are all members of a co-op processing plant–Royal Star Foods–many of their colleagues are forced to sell their catch straight to corporate plants.
Obviously, the price is only going to improve to what the market will bear. Trade agreements have Swiss cheesed the border, and it is not difficult still for Maine lobster to come in by the truckload. Yet the common sentiment is about the irrelevance of the middlemen: while the fishermen pull in $2.75/lb, the grocery stores will sell for $11/lb–almost four times as much. Not many are optimistic about the outcomes for this season, with most hoping to squeak up by 50 cents on the pound. As one fellow put it, “It’s just not a good business to be in this year.”
In light of these events and the downward trend of fishing incomes it is not hard to see why so many young men from the Maritimes are being forced out west. For one thing, the capital costs in a fishing career are phenomenal: a license alone will run you $350,000 and it’ll cost at least $150,000 more to get a boat on the water. At the same time, it’s barely possible to feed yourself, much less pay down the debt. One young man known to two fishers I was talking to caught 25,000 lbs of lobster in a season, paid himself $500/week wage, and, after the whole season, was able to clear another $85. Almost everybody has to go do rigs in the winter, and many have left the fishing business entirely. The two gentlemen reflected that it was even getting difficult to find crew to take out fishing because anyone who has been around owns their own boat and all the young men are gone.
It’s difficult to say what will happen, but one thing is certain: as go the fisherman, so will Tignish and so many other small communities here. That way of life is so embedded in the history and culture of this area that it is hard to imagine it gone–yet, that picture is looking more likely by the day. Check back tomorrow for updates.