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Rogue wave hits Canadian lobster industry as U.S. moves to increase minimum legal size

A U.S. survey of lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine has found a continued decline in the number of young lobster, triggering an increase in the size of lobsters that can be legally harvested there. (Brian Snyder/Reuters - image credit)
A U.S. survey of lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine has found a continued decline in the number of young lobster, triggering an increase in the size of lobsters that can be legally harvested there. (Brian Snyder/Reuters - image credit)

An unexpected decision to increase the minimum legal size of lobster in the United States has appeared like a rogue wave on the Canadian industry, threatening to curtail live exports south of the border.

With total Canadian live shipments worth $545 million in 2022, the potential trade implications were first item on the agenda in the annual U.S.-Canada Lobster Town Meeting being held in Moncton, N.B., this week.

"Effectively we will not be able to ship a certain size lobster there that we always have. So their action will create an action that we have to respond to in Canada," said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

The U.S. move to increase the minimum legal size of a lobster carapace, or outer shell, from 82 millimetres to 84 millimetres in January 2025 — and to 86 millimetres in 2027 — would create a mismatch in the closely integrated two-way trade between the countries.

The Canadian minimum is 82 millimetres in most of Atlantic Canada and the initial difference would be about the thickness of a loonie coin.

Increase was automatic

"With the size distribution of lobsters that are landed, that proportion of stock that could fall within that relatively small four-millimetre range could be as much as 10 to 30 per cent of the actual landings in a given year," said Adam Cook, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

The U.S. increase was automatically triggered by surveys in the Gulf of Maine, including ones showing a continued decline in the abundance of young lobster.

The threshold only came into effect in May 2023 and was unexpectedly tripped in October.

Dan McKiernan, who is from Massachusetts, says the increase in the American legal minimum is designed to give lobsters more time to mature and produce more eggs.
Dan McKiernan, who is from Massachusetts, says the increase in the American legal minimum is designed to give lobsters more time to mature and produce more eggs.

Dan McKiernan, who is from Massachusetts, says the increase in the American legal minimum is designed to give lobsters more time to mature and produce more eggs. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

"We knew we were approaching the number, but we had no anticipation that we were going to trigger it when we approved it in May," says Dan McKiernan, vice-chair of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which made the decision.

He says giving lobster more time to mature and reproduce is behind the measure.

"So a little bit of gauge increase gives you a lot of egg production and that's our insurance against future declines we hope," he said.

Addressing trade repercussions

The commission delayed implementation until next January for the industry to address trade repercussions and so manufacturers can produce new gauges needed on board fishing boats.

Canadian and Americans attending the meeting agree the next step will be measures that disallow entry of Canadian live lobster below the U.S. new minimum. However, bonded trucks carrying "undersized" Canadian lobster would be allowed across the border for flights from U.S. airports to Asia, McKiernan says.

It was also clear the Americans are unlikely to retreat, leaving Canada with a decision: increase the minimum to meet the U.S. standard or not.

'It's going to be really economically challenging'

Tommy Amirault, a Pubnico, N.S., fisherman and president of the Coldwater Lobster Association, says it could mean throwing away 20 per cent of a catch or keeping it and getting a lower price.

"For some of the fishermen this is going to be a really hard pill to swallow," he said. "It's going to be really economically challenging."

Louisbourg Seafoods in Cape Breton buys 3.5-million pounds of lobster a year.

Allan Maclean, senior operations manager of Louisbourg Seafoods, says sorting  lobster to meet U.S. increase would be burdensome.
Allan Maclean, senior operations manager of Louisbourg Seafoods, says sorting lobster to meet U.S. increase would be burdensome.

Allan Maclean, senior operations manager of Louisbourg Seafoods, says separating out lobster that doesn't meet the U.S. minimum would be burdensome. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Manager Allan Maclean says segregating the two sizes would be burdensome, as would finding new markets.

"We don't measure the actual carapace. So it could be anywhere from 10 to per cent to 20 per cent. It could be as high as 30 per cent. We just don't know," he said.

"This is something that we will have to look at in this year's season to try to determine what percentage of the lobsters that we buy would be no longer allowed."

Maine imports into Canada also impacted

Lobster going the other way will also be affected. Right now the processing side of the business — largely located in New Brunswick — imports lobster from Maine especially when Canadian seasons are closed.

American fishermen will be throwing back some of the catch they normally sell.

"It is a deeply interdependent industry and inevitably this will have impacts on markets and on the ability of people on both sides of the border to do business. I'm not saying it'll be catastrophic, but clearly it will have an impact," said Nat Richard of the Lobster Processors Association.

Nat Richard, the executive director of the Lobster Processors Association, says harmonizing with the increased U.S. legal minimum size is a short-term pain for Canada, but it will impact supply entering Canada
Nat Richard, the executive director of the Lobster Processors Association, says harmonizing with the increased U.S. legal minimum size is a short-term pain for Canada, but it will impact supply entering Canada

Nat Richard, executive director of the Lobster Processors Association, says harmonizing with the increased U.S. legal minimum size will cause short-term pain for Canada. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

It happened 35 years ago

The last time this happened was 35 years ago when the U.S. increased its legal minimum size under legislation introduced by Maine's then U.S. senator George Mitchell.

Canada filed, and lost, an unfair trade practices dispute under the North American Free Trade Act. As a result, most of Atlantic Canada increased the legal minimum size to march the American standard.

This time around, Amirault says, he's "not sure if we're going to have a choice."

"We're dealing with a country that is our major trading partner. We might not like it, but you know they've got a big stick" he said."

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