What do you know about lobster fishing?

Price Wars and Greed

by Thea Atkinson

It’s very  nearly the end of lobster season here in Nova Scotia and I wanted to post about before it ended because some very interesting things happened this season. The biggest? The fishermen in District 34 went on strike–something only accomplished once before in its history that I know of. Most of you know I’m a lobster fisherman’s wife. I met my husband when he and his family lived in a shanty during the fishing season on a remote Tusket island back in the 80s. Back then, he stayed on the island from Sunday to Friday for the months of December and January, and then again from March to May. Often, the weather was too fierce during January and February to sail to the island or to stay there and be at the mercy of insulation made of eelgrass or an outhouse at the head of a wharf.

Recently, there has been much discussion and angst over the price of lobster in our area: the fishermen (who hold our local regional economy together and supply much of the world’s lobster) are vying for a higher price; buyers are sticking to their guns and giving some of the lowest prices per pound in years.

Let me break it down for you:

  • It costs the average fisherman $3 a pound to fish his grounds, and due to increasing fuel costs, that number is growing. Btw: that figure doesn’t include salaries.
  • The buyers were offering an average of $3.25 a pound.

(note: the price settled after the strike at $5 a pound…about .50 less than what fishermen were asking for, but still a far sight better than it was at the opening of the season.)

At the height of the season: those first 2 weeks when the market has its highest demand, and when in the past, lobster went for an average of $5.50 per pound, our economy was able to keep our area going. Buyers made money. Fishermen made money. Fish plant workers made money. The local stores made money. Restaurants made money. Car lots made money.

Get the point?

So you say, “So? They’re making .25 per pound. That must surely be nothing to quibble about. It’s about time the lobstermen stopped complaining and stopped being so greedy.”

You’re right; some fishermen are greedy (so are some bankers, some lawyers, some used car salesmen).

The year my husband had to stop fishing after nearly 25 years, he nearly went overboard. The weather was incredibly, consistently, bad. He stabbed himself in the nerve sheath of his wrist when a rogue wave knocked the boat as he was trying to cut loose a snarl in the rope. He tore a healing tendon hauling on a snarled trawl. He wore arm bands on both arms to help manage the tendonitis he suffered from pinching open traps and banding lobsters. X-rays showed he has two compressed discs in his back from the rigor of hauling 100 pound traps all day. He was icing his swollen knees each night from the bob and weave of sea-legging. He would rise at 3:15 am and arrive home around 6 pm if everything went well.

Most fishermen, if they are in the stern, work enough to break down 2 men’s bodies in the course of their career. The stern is back-breaking, leg-twisting, life threatening work here in District 34.

About four years ago, our next door neighbour got knocked over on dumping day. He managed to get hauled back into the boat despite his boots filling with frigid water and having a hard time moving to swim. He, like most fishermen these parts, breathed a sigh of relief when he was drug back aboard, and thanked God for the quickness of his crewmates. Then he changed his clothes for dry ones. Then he went on fishing.

Would you be able to go merrily about your workday if you came close enough to the afterlife that you could smell the mothballs on Death’s cloak?

I’m not trying to convince you that it’s a smaller version of “The Deadliest Catch”; I’m trying to tell you what I think of this whole affair, this whole area-wide controversy that fishermen are just greedy men who want a price the buyers and market can’t support.

I’m sick of hearing folks who do not really, really know a fisherman’s life, argue that want of a higher price is driven by greed.

I just want to hear someone say they can respect the work these men do.

I support a price that benefits all in the little tangled web of the lobster price structure. Yes, I said that supports ALL: that includes my little corner of the world where my daughter can have part-time work in a retail store because people in the area actually have some spare money to buy a nice thing now and then. That includes your corner of the world where you can eat out in a restaurant once in a while because a fisherman’s dollar is helping to keep that outlet open. It includes the electrician who can live in his/her heritage village and work because a fisherman is building a new shed, or a car salesman who can feed his family because a fisherman needs a new truck. Where a buyer can employ fishplant workers, drivers, and wharf loaders.

Whatever you think of whatever side of the controversy you’re on, please realize that not all fishermen are greedy. Some are hired hands. Some are part owners. Some are even women with a hardy taste for the sea.

And some just want to feed their families, pay their bills, and send their kids to school.

-30-

Additional notes:

You don’t see much in the way of Youtube video of the real fishing times: those in the height of the season, when it’s the most dangerous. You see the videos from the spring: the end of May because that’s the time they can show what they do without worrying about watching every wave that moves. You don’t see many videos from the depths of winter, myboyoh.

But you do see a few that hint at what it’s like.

Don’t forget the Haystack giveaway. You can win a $50 Amazon Card.

If you liked this post, please do share.

Thea is the author of several novels that she considers left of mainstream. You can find her on BN, Kobo, Sony, Apple

Anomaly by Thea Atkinson

Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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21 comments on “What do you know about lobster fishing?
  1. RDoug says:

    Welcome to the Walmartization of wages and the race to the bottom. It’s not affecting salaries in almost every segment of labor.

    How incredibly sad.

  2. JoJo says:

    Hi there! New to your blog. I just found out that you are related to my boyfriend’s family who hail from Cape Cod (the Purdys). Your cousin, Bea Quirk, posted a link for ‘Water Witch’ on Facebook. Very cool. Lots of lobstermen here too; it’s a rough and hard life and I have the utmost respect for them. Russell did his share of lobstering & fishing too when he was a kid. Will have to check out your books! 🙂

  3. tdunbar5 says:

    Fishing out of Corea, Maine. We are getting 2.50 a pound for shedders, and they haven’t even come on yet for the outside boats. Imagine the impact we could have on the industry’s prices if we could organize a strike from Canada and throughout Maine. It is the only option that seems viable now. Look at all the revolutions that have taken place by using the internet, it would be the best tool to use for organization.

    • oiy. 2.50? sheesh. nasty. just nasty.

      lobster fishermen in this area are hard to get together on anything. one week this year was HISTORIC. truly. good luck with your season

  4. Ted says:

    Thea, I just left a message over on Vivienne Tuffnell’s blog and discovered you there. This post interests me quite a bit because I’m a lobsterman over here in Maine, on Little Cranberry Island, just a few miles from Bar Harbor, the “other” end of what used to be the Cat (or Bluenose) ferry line from Yarmouth. I’ve been to Nova Scotia a few times, and to me it’s like going home, more like Maine than Maine is.

    The prices here are really giving us a hard time too. I’ve been doing this since the ’70s and I’ve had a few bad years because of recessions, but never a four-year stretch, going into five. Like you’ve outlined, the operational expenses pretty much eat up most of the lobster price.

    We can fish year-round here, but we don’t go much in the winter at all. In this area, the biggest hauls are July through November. The softshells are coming early this year and that’s another excuse for the buyers to drive the price down. It’s a mess.

    I wish you and your husband the very best through it all. Ted

    • Ted:

      So glad you dropped in. It’s cool to hear from a fisherman from across the bay. You used language that is very similar to here: “…another excuse for the buyers to drive the price down.” is pretty much exactly the same sentiment here. Soft shells don’t seem to be a problem for us in the spring, but very much so in the first few weeks. odd. but they all say the bugs seem to be molting more often…or molting at different times than traditionally. water temp, must be.

      • Ted says:

        This spring the lobsters don’t seem to know what to do. The spring hardshells are coming late, the softshells early but not too strong, and they’re shedding in deeper water first, which never happens. It’s hard to know where to set a gang of traps because there isn’t any recognizable pattern. Usually, once the summer run starts they’re somewhat predictable, although there’s always a bit of a guessing game.

        Are the Canadian lobster processors back to work full time? I’m not really up on that, but in the fall of ’08 when the banks crashed, and the Icelandic banks in particular, your processors went out of business quick and took half of our market down with them. That’s when the price plummeted, but it had been week for several months anyway as the recession was starting. We thought the price was straightening out last year when it crashed again just as the fall fishing was coming on. October and November are pretty much our bread-and-butter months so that’s not a good time to see that happen. Looks like this year is in for more austerity measures.

      • Ted says:

        I just re-read your blog post. I hope your husband has healed OK. That sounds like a whole lot of no fun.

  5. […] price, greed, and striking. My lil post got the second highest posts of my blogging history with What do you know about Lobster Fishing? The post itself wasn’t attributed to any of my ebooks in particular, it was just there […]

  6. elroyjones says:

    My husband fished for 25 years, most of them lobstering. When we were newlyweds he fished off the Hague line and he was gone more often than he was home. I was grateful when he stopped. He hated to come ashore but he’s still alive. We never buy lobster or fish from anyone but the fisherman and we always pay cash. It’s a hard life. Here in the New England there’s no security in it and no safety net when times are tough and money is tight. Good for you for speaking out!

    • Pleasure to meet a fellow fisherman’s wife. and Amen to the hard life comment. It is. It really is. But they love it, don’t they?

      • elroyjones says:

        Yes, they do. We have become small business owners because my husband, “couldn’t work for anyone else.” There are exasperating but so interesting. Some of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met are fishermen.

  7. Eleanor MacIsaac says:

    I live in a fishing community here in Yarmouth Nova Scotia and although I am not a fisherman’s wife I do have a son that fishes and a son-in law that was a lobster fisherman. My father was a fisherman. My whole family made their living from the sea and I am surrounded by fishermen. Our town depends on the lobster fishing industry and what the buyers are offering, the boats just cannot go out for that amount of money and pay their crew. Some have and are losing homes because it is just not feasible to fish anymore and a way of life is being threatened also their livelihood is being taken away. If the buyers can dictate to the fisherman they will be in a dour mess for sure. If you go into a store to purchase a loaf of bread, there is a set price for it. You don’t tell the store that you aren’t paying that price and want it for less. Well put yourself in the fisherman’s position. He has the product(he is the store) he should be setting the price and if the buyer wants it he pays or doesn’t get it unless the fisherman puts a sale on . Simple as that!

  8. My late better half was a lobsterman for seventeen years here in Gloucester and he would certainly agree with your post. Thank you for writing it. Most of the lobstermen here in Gloucester are just trying to stay in business and not all of them are succeeding.

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  10. Cindy says:

    Very nice read Thea and I agree with every point touched, it’s heartwarming
    to read something that cuts to the chase and supports every inch of a fisherman!

  11. Diane Tibert says:

    I think part of the problem is people are fighting to keep everything down and raise a fuss when prices are set to what they actually should be. People want cheap; they don’t want quality.

    Take a dozen eggs for example. People expect to pay $2 a dozen now just like they paid twenty years ago. If gas can go from 68 cents to $1.34 in that time, why in the world do they think you can still pay the same price for eggs. To make customers happy, the industry increases output by reducing the quality…qaulity of the feed, housing and life of the hen. If you pay $2 a dozen for eggs, you’re getting that level of quality. This is why organic eggs are $6 a dozen.

    I know eggs because I grow my own and when I have extra, I sell them for $3 a dozen. That’s a fair price considering they’re free-range and large. The yolks are so yellow (full of gooddness not cholestrol) I can’t even make a white cake with them.

    I don’t know lobster, but I imagine it’s the same: people expect yesterday’s prices today.

    Unfortunately, what this demand for cheap food does is create an environment where junk is mass marketed for food, which leads to health problems and high health care costs. What people don’t realise is things such as ice cream and potatoe chips are being reduced in quantity, yet the price stays the same. Companies can do this with such products, but lobster fisherman can’t unless they begin packaging it instead of selling whole.

    The sad fact is, people are not ready to pay the price–what it really costs to produce the product–but I believe they’re going to be in for a rude awakening in the coming years. To eat, peole are going to have to reduce the unnecessary things in life: ten pairs of shoes, big-screen televisions, cell phones, gas-guzzling trucks…

  12. kittyb78 says:

    I lived near the ocean from 13.5-16. I know what it’s like. My old youth group teacher owned a shrimping boat. it’s not as easy as people think. I appreciate what fishermen and women do and shrimpers. It’s hard, grueling work.

    Having lived off whatever we caught in the ocean was tough too. we dragged large fishing nets on the bottom of the ocean near the beach to get shrimp, used traps for crabs. Not an easy life by any means.

    Been out on the boats too. Even when the weather isn’t rough, if it;s a small boat you get tossed around a lot. Waves can be vicious and unforgiving, yet beautiful all the same. My prayers for you and your family.

  13. I have never heard of a rich fisherman of any kind. They work very hard under tough conditions for very little. You definitely have my respect.

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