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Lobster exports: ‘Nothing else in our province comes close to it'

Lobster vessels head out to the lobster fishing grounds to set their gear on the dumping day in southwestern Nova Scotia.
Lobster vessels head out to the lobster fishing grounds to set their gear on the dumping day in southwestern Nova Scotia. - Tina Comeau

Thousands of kilograms of live Nova Scotia lobster take off from the Halifax Stanfield International Airport everyday, shipped in bulk across the globe, often destined for customers in the United States, Europe and increasingly, Asia.

Lobster and other cargo exports accounted for a total economic output of $514 million for the province and Nova Scotia exported a whopping $213 million worth (11,357,190 kilograms) of the crustaceans in 2018, which was a 15 per cent increase from the previous year.

And Halifax International Airport Authorities only expect the trend to continue.

“For five consecutive years, overall cargo volume at Halifax Stanfield has consistently grown and we’re anticipating 2019 to be another excellent year considering the increasing demand for seafood in Asia and Europe,” says Glen Boone, the airport’s director for cargo and real estate development.

“In fact, seafood, particularly live Nova Scotia lobster, is our number one export commodity, both by value and volume.”

Turbulence in the industry

However, the future of Nova Scotia’s lobster fishery isn’t as rosy as some would assume. A combination of historic landing rates, lobster politics and tighter regulations could impact fishers across the province.

Megan Bailey, a professor at Dalhousie University and the Canada research chair in integrated ocean and coastal governance, says there’s no denying the importance of seafood exports for the province but regulations are changing.

“It’s huge,” she says of the fisheries. “Nothing else in our province comes close to it.”

Add up the collective fisheries industries together – fishing, processing, logistics and exportation – it becomes the largest employer in the province, says Bailey.

Nova Scotia is currently responsible for the majority of Canada’s lobster catch given fishermen have been enjoying historic landing rates across the province.

Most of what is caught is hard-shell lobster which, says Bailey, makes it prime for exportation overseas -- at least 50 per cent of what’s caught is exported overseas.

But Bailey is worried that the combination of high landing rates and provincial politics may place unreasonable expectations on the fishery.

Adam Cook, a research scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, acknowledges that researchers don’t know if the lobster stock will  remain at current levels and says that the industry is in uncharted territory.

Moving product

Thousands of kilograms of lobsters leave Halifax Stanfield International Airport daily, that number is only expected to rise over the coming years. - Tina Comeau
Thousands of kilograms of lobsters leave Halifax Stanfield International Airport daily, that number is only expected to rise over the coming years. - Tina Comeau

Despite the uncertainty, the provincial government has previously stated it wants to double seafood exports in the next 10 years.

Bailey questions how the government will reach this target.

“Either you need to catch twice as much, you need to export twice as much, which means less available lobster for Nova Scotians or you need some value added,” Bailey says.

Countries like Japan and the United States are also tightening their import regulations, making product harder to move.

“We’re moving towards a more restrictive trade environment that requires a lot of paperwork,” says Bailey, adding it’s becoming increasingly complicated for fishermen to sell their product.

“It’s complicated in terms of the fact that these different markets require different kinds of paperwork, different forms and different levels of scrutiny depending on if its governments or a company,” she says.

Overall, the workload for the average fisher is increasing as they have to grapple with both the act of catching the lobster and then the ensuing bureaucracy.

Helping fishermen to navigate the process, says Bailey, is one way governments could increase exports.

“I think more support for inshore fishers to meet these regulations would be something worth investigating,” she says.

Despite changing regulations, the lobster fishery is still one of Nova Scotia’s most valuable industries. If landing rates continue at the current levels, the province may be able to meet that demand.

But the real goal, says Bailey, should be to develop the fishery in a way that secures seafood for Nova Scotians while continuing to export a product coveted around the world.

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