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CORNWALL, PEI, Apr 26, 2015/ Troy Media/ – For many Prince Edward Islanders, one key sign of the arrival of spring is the “first feed” of lobsters.
There is probably no scientific basis to this theory, but it isn’t hard to find Islanders who will tell you lobsters caught on the first day of the season are the tastiest of all. It may well be a case of mind over matter – many people envision that taste during the long, cold months of winter and the first bite becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
This year, it will be a case of delayed gratification. The opening of the season is delayed from its traditional starting date of May 1. The setting of the traps the previous day is a time-honoured tradition in many rural communities across the province, and often includes a blessing of the fleet by clergymen as everybody in the community joins in wishing the fishermen a safe and profitable season.
29 million pounds landed during 2014 lobster season
The second worst winter in island history in terms of snowfall has also seen many ports jammed up with ice later in the season. Because of that, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided on April 23 to delay setting lobster day until ice conditions improve.
This is about much more than a delayed meal. Not surprisingly for a province surrounded by water, the fishery has always been big business. French Explorer Jacques Cartier, widely believed to be the first European to see what we now know as PEI, said the island waters contained fish “as far as the eye could see.”
Generations of fishing have reduced that number, but fishing is still the third largest industry on the island, behind agriculture and tourism. Lobster is the main species, with more than 29 million pounds landed in 2014 according to the provincial Department of Fisheries. That represents nearly $115 million injected into the island economy.
As they began to ready their traps in March and early April, fishermen kept a wary eye on ice conditions. The season is short (the spring season runs until the end of June and there is a smaller fall fishery which goes from August to October). Time spent in port translates into lost dollars, so fishermen will be seeking an extension to the season from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Many fishermen have found it difficult to find helpers for their boats in recent years. Potential workers have headed west to answer the siren call of higher wages in the oil industry. The problem has been further compounded by the changes to the Employment Insurance system that tighten the requirements for workers in seasonal industries, like the fishery. While the slowdown in the oil and gas sector has meant some islanders have returned home, the delay could make it more difficult for boat captains to get workers if they don’t know exactly when they will be on the water.
The same situation holds true for the plants across the province that will process the catch. They have historically had problems securing enough island workers despite double-digit unemployment, and they have been relying for the past several years on temporary foreign workers.
That option was largely closed by changes announced last year by the federal government. Not knowing exactly when potential employees will start doesn’t help with the recruitment efforts.
Lobster season shouldn’t be delayed for long
Realistically, the delay will not likely be long. Once the ice starts to break up, it can move rather fast; water that was jammed solid one day can offer clear sailing the next. While he recognizes the importance of ensuring all fishermen are safe, veteran fisherman Craig Avery was disappointed at the announcement of the delay a week before the planned setting day.
Avery, president of the PEI Fishermen’s Association, said his industry group was polling its members in preparation for a conference call between industry representatives and government officials that was to take place just a few days after the announcement.
Avery was hoping to have some input into the department’s decision, but instead they were just left hanging. He is hoping that will not prove to be an omen for how the season goes.
A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.
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