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Lobster fishermen shocked by COVID19 as Chinese stop buying

PortandTerminal.com, February 19, 2020

Keith Colwell, Nova Scotian Minister of Fisheries is under pressure to deal with COVID19 crisis. Lobster fishermen are scared. “We’re dying here. I got no time for talk and promises

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – China is usually a big market for Nova Scotia lobster fishermen. But after years of growth, lobster exports to China from Nova Scotia have all but disappeared following the recent coronavirus outbreak.

People aren’t going out to eat at restaurants in China these days and that has crushed Nova Scotia’s lobster fishermen’s livelihood. “They’re rightly scared,” said a manager at a small fishing boat operation that harvests lobster.

Empty restaurant in China
Date: Feb. 19, 2020 – 76,000 people have been infected with COVID19. Of those, 2,122 are now dead. That’s hurt business everywhere. Like this restaurant in Hong Kong.

The province of Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast makes up the majority of Canada’s lobster industry, bringing more than $US 570 million in 2018. For a province with a population of less than a million people, that’s big money. Lobster pays a lot of bills in this small community.

Planes stop flying

Early last week, Halifax Stanfield International Airport received news that Skylease, one of their air cargo carriers, was suspending all direct flights to China. 

The spokesperson for the Halifax airport said this means two to three weekly cargo flights, typically carrying seafood and going directly from Halifax to the Chinese market, will not be happening. For lobster fishermen without deep pockets in Nova Scotia, that’s a death blow.

Charter air freight flights of lobster from Nova Scotia to China are now cancelled

Lobster Fishermen

Lobster fishing is hard, dangerous work. Much of it is done in Canada’s frigid winter. Each year Nova Scotia loses a handful of its lobster fisherman to accidents. Mostly drownings as men are dragged down, tangled in their lines and gear. In many small coastal towns, being a lobster fisherman is the only real job on offer.

But that job just got harder. “This is unprecedented. “We are in uncharted waters,” said Bruce Gidney, vice-president of Digby-based Gidney Fisheries Limited speaking about the collapse of demand from China.

Nova Scotia lobster fishermen have been stockpiling their catches in holding tanks since the “Chinese” virus killed demand for their catch. “You can only hold lobsters for so long and then they start dying on you,” said Gidney.  It’s a race against time.

The Chinese virus outbreak “was almost like a tap and turning off the water. It stopped, and it stopped very quickly” said one in the industry. Sales have gone down by 80 per cent. 

But fishermen’s families bills don’t turn off like water and many are scared now. “Each proper lobster boat is a million-dollar operation in this day and age,” said one boat owner PortandTerminal interviewed. “Now imagine 35 one million dollar operations in a community going underwater.

Government reaction

Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Caldwell
Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell

Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell takes a more relaxed, longer-term view on the current crisis. “Coronavirus won’t affect the lobster industry for long” he was reported as saying. “This will be on a temporary basis, because it’s not about our lobster quality, it’s not about them not wanting it, it’s just quarantines (sic) that they have in place so we can’t ship anything in.

READ: Maritime Image of the Day: “Dumping Day”

Colwell is right of course. COVID19 will go away one day, and demand for Nova Scotia’s lobster in China will eventually return. Nova Scotia does have the best lobster in the world. It’s just the waiting on the “when” that’s crushing many of Nova Scotia’s lobster fisherman with bills to pay and families to support.

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