By Carla Allen and Tina Comeau
As a strike by lobster fishermen drags into the one-week mark, at wharves around the region there are mixed signals and mixed opinions as to whether the strike should continue.
In some areas the strike is already over, with fishermen leaving their wharfs. At other ports, entire fleets remain tied up.
Lobster fishermen at some of the wharves in Yarmouth and Shelburne counties say they want to return to fishing but are being intimidated and threatened by others, who are continuing their strike for higher prices.
The strike action was initiated by the 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermens Association on April 27. The goal of the strike had been to have buyers commit to a price of $5.50 until the season ends on May 31. Although at wharfs around Yarmouth County on Thursday fishermen said they'd be happy with a committed price of $5 for the rest of the season.
Fishermen worry without a committed price in the remaining weeks of the season, the price will drop to $4 a pound or less, and they say they can't make a living on low prices coupled with high expenses, which is a situation that has faced them these past few seasons.
Both the 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermens Association and the LFA34 Management Board are working to find a resolution to this lobster impasse.
Although 1688 made the initial call for the strike, the sporadic acts of vandalism that have occurred goes against the policies of the 1688 association. At meetings and online the association has said it does not condone violence or vandalism. Approximately 900 belong to the association, although actual licence holders compose a small percentage of the total.
And at the majority of fishing ports where the strike has been peaceful, fishermen resent being painted with the same brush as those individuals who have slashed tires or used threats.
Still, others say the intimidation factor exists and some are staying ashore not because they want to or because they support the strike, but because they are afraid of what will happen if they go fishing. Others support the strike but have bills to pay and say they need to go fishing, given that the season is almost over.
In some cases the strike is pitting friends against friends, fishermen against fishermen, communities against communities.
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On Wednesday, May 2, a meeting was held at the Shag Harbour wharf by fishermen who wanted to return fishing.
Captain Gary Banks also fishes from Shag Harbour. "We're really being controlled by a few. A few radicals. We shouldn't be held hostage by a few that don't want to go," he said.
During the meeting, which saw a strong RCMP presence, a front tire was slashed on a truck belonging to an East Pubnico fisherman.
The overall consensus by those attending the meeting in Shag Harbour was to return fishing on Thursday.
The RCMP, meanwhile, have been busy keeping a visual presence at wharfs in Shelburne County over the past couple of days.
At the Port Maitland wharf in Yarmouth County on Thursday morning, May 3, one fisherman said a meeting had been held the night before.
"I think you'll see a lot of fishermen heading out today," he said.
A meeting was also being held at the Overton Church at 10 a.m. on Thursday by fishermen from the Yarmouth Bar.
The 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermen Association has scheduled a meeting for Friday, May 4 from 7-9 p.m. at the Mariners Centre. The association is continuing to confer with buyers in an effort to establish a price of $5/pound for the remainder of the fishing season, which ends May 31.
On a posting on the group’s Facebook page on Wednesday evening, which coincided with a meeting held in Woods Harbour that same night, the group said buyers association president James Mood had spoken to had said they could confirm a price of $5 until the end of the week and a price of $4.50 up until May 12. Beyond that, the buyers Mood spoke with couldn't say. It wasn't the news fishermen wanted to hear. At the meeting in Woods Harbour, fishermen voted to stay tied up until a fair committed price for the season is achieved.
Thursday was a beautiful day in Yarmouth County – a beautiful day for fishing, that is. Yet at many wharfs entire fleets remained tied up.
On the wharfs and in the parking lots the strike was all people were talking about. The consensus from fishermen at wharfs in Pinkneys Point, Little River Harbour and Wedgeport was that everyone wants to go fishing. But whether they can afford to go fishing is a different story. In fact at these three wharfs on Thursday morning, the only fishing happening was some rod and reel fishing off the Pinkneys Point wharf.
Decisions are weighing heavy on people's minds. Some fishermen are conflicted about how long they can stay ashore, while others say they are prepared to stick things out on shore for as long as it takes.
One fisherman said his daily expenses (and this didn't include paying his crew) are $600 a day. Another said a fisherman who operates a larger boat can face daily expenses of $900.
“We’re not in this just to break even,” said a fisherman. “We need something to get ahead.”
This isn’t just a black and white issue. Intermingled in it are many shades of grey. One buyer who was at a wharf talking with fishermen said a factor working against the strike effort is that lobster fisheries have opened up elsewhere over the past week. Fishermen are fishing lobster in Prince Edward Island, in New Brunswick, in northern Nova Scotia and in Newfoundland. He said as a buyer he can’t offer a $5 price if buyers elsewhere are offering $4.50, because it is those $4.50 lobsters that are going to be purchased for market. But if everyone were offering the same price, he said, it would be easier. And there is also the uncertainty the quality of lobster that is going to be landed, he told fishermen on the wharf, which also makes a committed price tricky.
But some fishermen responded by saying they just can’t make it on a $4 or lower price, particularly given the low prices fishermen received in the fall.
And with mortgage payments, boat payments, crew payments and other expenses, including supporting their families, they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. You can’t make a living while you’re staying ashore.
Then again, if the price is too low, they say, you can’t make one on the water either. Some have even questioned whether they should just haul up their gear and call it a day.
One thing most fishermen agree on is that discussions need to begin this summer about what will happen with the season next fall. Some fishermen said these talks need to begin in June.