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Protesting N.L. crab fishers watch from shore as Maritime fishers head out to harvest

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — As a standoff between crab fishers and processors enters its third week in Newfoundland and Labrador, all eyes are on Maritime fishers who have begun their annual harvest.
Members of the FFAW (Fish, Food and Allied Workers) and their supporters rally at the Confederation Building in St. John's, Monday, April 17, 2023. They are protesting the set price of crab at $2.20 cents per pound, down more than $5.00 from last year's price. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — As a standoff between crab fishers and processors enters its third week in Newfoundland and Labrador, all eyes are on Maritime fishers who have begun their annual harvest.

Fishers in Canada's easternmost province have refused to harvest snow crab since the season began on April 10. They say they can't make a living off this year's price of $2.20 per pound – a precipitous drop from last year's opening price of $7.60 per pound.

But in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, the crab fishery is in full swing. The catch from Maritime fishers could push up prices, according to the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, which represents inshore harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“With fresh crab starting to enter the market from the gulf, it’s possible we may (see) an upswing in market prices,” said FFAW president Greg Pretty in a news release Monday night.

Crab is a lucrative species for Atlantic Canada, and it was Canada's second-largest seafood export in 2021. But while market prices hit record highs during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they began plummeting last year, said Les Hodges, a Seattle-based seafood industry consultant.

The United States blocked sales from Russia to punish the country for its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, so Russia flooded parts of the international market with cheap product, Hodges said. Meanwhile, customers in the United States, which is Canada's biggest market, were no longer interested in paying high prices as inflation soared.

He said Canadian seafood sellers, whose customers are mainly in the United States, collectively closed out the year with huge stores of unsold inventory – "about 10 million pounds," Hodges said – and they're still struggling to get rid of it.

"Basically, any holder of crab is losing money right now," he said. "The business is there but the momentum was lost."

Crab prices in Newfoundland and Labrador are set by a government-appointed panel that hears arguments from the FFAW and from the province’s Association of Seafood Producers. 

"Every single day that we are not fishing, we are compounding the complexities and the difficulties associated with the snow crab fishery," Jeff Loder, director of the producers' association, told reporters Monday.

The inshore fishers' union accused Loder of using "intimidation tactics," and said it would consult with fishers all week as it watched to see if fresh crab from the Gulf of St. Lawrence would drive the price back up.

“In one breath, they say the markets are shot and they have nowhere to sell the crab, and in the next they say they need a fishery right now," Pretty said in the union's news release, about the producers' association. "It’s a good position for harvesters to be in."

Fishers in Nova Scotia who are harvesting crab in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are making $2.25 a pound, and they aren't much better off than their counterparts in Newfoundland and Labrador, said Gordon Beaton, vice-president of the Nova Scotia wing of the Maritime Fishermen's Union. It's up to each fisher to decide if it's worth it to fish, he said.

Beaton said he doesn't know how the market might be affected if Nova Scotia harvesters decide to fish while those in Newfoundland and Labrador remain ashore.

"So when you have a glutted situation, I guess the less product that hits the shore may help at some point," he said. 

"I wish them good luck if they manage to move the price, for sure," he added about the Newfoundland and Labrador fishers. "But the market conditions are very poor at the moment."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press