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Published: Tuesday, 8/21/2012

COMMENTARY

Canada's Maine lobster tale

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE COLUMNIST

Say what you will about Canada -- that the people there are eerily polite, that their food is spectacularly uninteresting, that their geese ought to eat less fiber or just move back home -- diplomatically and practically speaking, they are our closest friends.

The United States and Canada are the two largest trading partners in the world. Our countries have the world's largest shared and undefended border.

Yet there is trouble in paradise. All is not copacetic with our neighbor to the north.

Specifically, the trouble is in Richibucto, New Brunswick, and it concerns lobsters.

Too many lobsters are being harvested from the Atlantic Ocean, according to lobstermen in Richibucto and elsewhere. It isn't the lobsters who are being hurt by this; their numbers are apparently sufficient to withstand the assault. Rather, it is the lobstermen themselves who are feeling the pinch.

Before we go any further, I should explain that all the best lobster-related puns for this story have already been used by the Associated Press: Canadian fishermen are "steamed" over the dispute. Tensions are "boiling over." Prices are at "rock bottom," which may or may not be a pun on rock lobsters.

"Feeling the pinch" was the best lobster pun I could manage. Admittedly it is weak, but it isn't any weaker than "rock bottom."

Anyway, the dispute: According to the otherwise serious AP story, fishermen in Maine and Canada combined in 1992 to pull 150 million pounds of lobster from the ocean. In 2010, that number had grown to 257 million pounds, an increase of nearly 60 percent. Final numbers are not yet known for last year, but they are expected to be larger. This year's haul could set a record.

This is where the law of supply and demand comes into play, with potentially devastating results for the lobstermen. With lobsters flooding the market -- their insect-like antennae waggling, their claws snapping -- their price is sharply dropping. Lobstermen in Maine are now getting $2.35 a pound for their haul, about a dollar less than they picked up last year. Canadian lobsterfolks are similarly being squeezed.

The difference is, the Canadians are blaming the Americans, or at least the Mainers. They are taking action. Two weeks ago, they began blockading truckloads of Maine lobsters to keep them from reaching processing plants in Canada.

Most lobsters are sold live, to be cooked whole to order. But a surprisingly large portion, estimated at 35 percent to 50 percent of Maine's catch, are shipped off to processing plants to be canned or frozen for lobster tails. It is those lobsters that are being blockaded.

Simply shipping the lobsters to processing plants in Maine will not work because Maine only has three relatively large plants, compared to at least 25 in Canada.

After a few days' protest, every plant in New Brunswick had been shut down, and the protest had spread to plants on Prince Edward Island. Then a New Brunswick court issued an injunction keeping the protestors from forming a blockade for 10 days, which should allow all sides to negotiate a settlement. The Canadian processors have offered to pay $2.50-$3 per pound, but the lobstermen say they need $4.

As of this writing, we are at a stalemate.

One of the other things you can say about Canadians is that they typically do not overreact to things, or they do not react in an unseemly manner. Which is why it is so surprising that the Canadian lobstermen were surrounding Maine trucks to keep them from unloading, holding up signs reading "No more U.S. lobster," and throwing Maine lobsters to the ground.

What a waste. If they didn't want them, they could just send the lobsters to me.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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