A major lobster processing plant in Escuminac is temporarily closing its doors, two years after it was purchased by a private American investment firm.
Raymond O'Neill & Son Fisheries employs about 135 seasonal workers each year.
It was purchased in 2021 by ACON Investments, based in Washington, D.C.
Parent company Atlantic Sustainable Catch has decided to consolidate its New Brunswick production at its Grande-Digue factory, Suncoast Seafood, also purchased in 2021, and "temporarily idle the plant in Escuminac to start the 2024 season," said spokesperson Luc Doiron.
The move is in response to "volatile supply and demand factors of the last two seasons, which have impacted the entire industry," he said in an emailed statement.
Workers will be offered jobs in Grande-Digue
"The integration of ASC's Canadian production will create operational efficiencies by merging two facilities at partial capacity into one."
The roughly 135 local seasonal employees at the Escuminac location will be offered positions at the Grand-Digue location for the 2024 season, which starts this May, Doiron noted.
Grand-Digue is roughly a 90-minute drive south of Escuminac.
Sad news for industry
Nat Richard, executive director of the Lobster Processors Association, said it's sad news for the industry.
"Raymond O'Neill and Son has been a long-standing processor. They're a big name in the lobster industry, highly recognized brand, and they've been in business for 40 years."
Nat Richard, executive director of the Lobster Processors Association, said the industry is going through a 'really rough patch.' (CBC)
Still, the temporary closure is not surprising, said Richard.
"We are going through a really rough patch in lobster processing," he said Thursday in Moncton, where he was attending the U.S.-Canada Lobster Town Meeting, an event for fishermen, managers, and researchers.
"We have challenges on the supply end.… We have major issues still in terms of fragile demand in many of our export markets.
"And look, they're not the first. We've had a handful of companies that have got into trouble … in the last two years," he said, citing the recent temporary closure of Riverside Lobster International at Meteghan, N.S., as an example.
He's sure the decision was not taken lightly, he added.
More closures could follow
Luc LeBlanc, a fisheries advisor at the Maritime Fishermen's Union, called the job losses at O'Neill & Son "another hard blow to our coastal communities."
At least 100 fishermen benefited from the factory's activities, said LeBlanc, who was attending the same industry meeting in Moncton Thursday.
Luc LeBlanc, fisheries advisor with the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said he hears there may be other plant closures. (Radio-Canada)
"There is a shortage of lobsters available in the area. There is excess production capacity, it seems. It's a rationalization that is imposed by the market," LeBlanc said in French.
"We don't know if this is a permanent closure. We are told there may be others."
Vincent Daigle, a retired fisherman from Baie-Sainte-Anne, believes that a closure — even a temporary one, is a very bad omen for his community.
"It's going to make a big hole in the place, there are a lot of people working there," he said.
Daigle doubts many of the affected workers will agree to commute daily to Grande-Digue when the fishing season resumes.
Vincent Daigle, a retired fisherman from Baie-Sainte-Anne, thinks few workers from Raymond O'Neill & Son Fisheries will agree to make the 90-minute drive every day to Grande-Digue. (Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio-Canada)
Everett Doucet, a Baie-Sainte-Anne resident, agrees.
"Workers will not be able to go to Grande-Digue to work for minimum wage," he said. "Impossible."
"It's not good for the community, for sure. It's not good for the world."
Éliane Sippley said the lobster processing industry is the main source of income for many people in her community of Baie-Sainte-Anne. (Pascal Raiche-Nogue/Radio-Canada)
Éliane Sippley, another villager, noted the lobster processing industry is the main source of income for many people.
The closure "isn't good for the community, for sure," she said. "Raymond O'Neill provides a lot" for the economy.
Future will depend on market conditions
The decision to idle operations in Escuminac is intended to be temporary, "contingent upon the future evolution of market conditions in general and the specific supply and demand factors related to ACS," according to the spokesperson.
"We are committed to our valued employees and the long term wellbeing of the community," Doiron said.
"ASC expects a strong and successful 2024 season across all species, for both our customers and employees."
Province monitoring the situation
The Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries is monitoring the situation, said spokesperson Mark Taylor.
Staff have been in contact with the company, he said.
The regional office of Working N.B. is also monitoring the situation closely and is ready to support the company's employees if necessary, Taylor added.
Early Thursday afternoon, when Radio-Canada visited the Escuminac factory, employees were in the offices. Two private security guards asked the journalists to leave the premises.
In 2021, Raymond O'Neill & Son said in a statement it was "thrilled" to partner with ACON.
"This partnership brings together resources and expertise in a way that will enable us to continue to build our business and grow with our customers into the long term," it said.