08/08/2012 12:03 EDT | Updated 10/08/2012 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick fishermen take lobster price fight to minister's office

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick fishermen staged a protest outside the federal fisheries minister's office Wednesday in their ongoing dispute over the import of lobsters from Maine, just as a U.S. senator called for beefed up enforcement in the province to ensure the smooth flow of goods across the border.

The fishermen rallied outside the Fredericton office of Keith Ashfield, the MP for the city, saying they are upset that lobsters from Maine are being processed in the province, thereby driving down prices for their own products.

"They can't take it anymore," said Christian Brun, a spokesman for the Maritime Fishermen's Union.

"They're going to go bankrupt and everybody's on the edge."

Lobster processors in New Brunswick agreed Friday to pay a minimum of $2.50 per pound for processed lobster and $3 per pound for live market lobster. But Brun said New Brunswick fishermen need $4 per pound for both fresh and processed lobster just to break even.

The union had hoped compensation from the New Brunswick government would make up for the difference. But provincial Fisheries Minister Michael Olscamp flatly refused that request.

"We're not in the game of bridging gaps in salaries where people are paid for product," he said. "It would set a very dangerous precedent."

Brun said that decision has thrown a "monkey wrench" into ongoing negotiations between the government and the union.

Instead, the province has offered to grant fishermen who have taken part in an $11-million loan program an extra year to pay back the money. The union has refused, Brun said.

"Ideas have been thrown around, but nothing has yet appeared that would be of interest for our members," he said.

Brun said in the meantime, there are plans to soon meet with Ashfield in an effort to resolve the dispute.

In an email, Ashfield's office said he has been involved in ongoing discussions with the fishermen, adding that he believes "an industry-led solution will be the best way forward."

The flare-up over lobster prices came to a head last week, when fishermen held demonstrations in Cap-Pele, N.B., and Shediac, N.B., and trucks were blocked from delivering Maine lobsters to three processors.

Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe also weighed into the fracas Wednesday, calling on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the lobster dispute.

"While I understand that the New Brunswick government is attempting to control these protests, it is clear that additional Canadian resources are necessary to maintain order and ensure continued commerce across the border," Snowe said in a letter to Clinton.

"Any acts of intimidation, violence, or coercion cannot be tolerated and order must be maintained to ensure that our relationship with our Canadian partners does not undermine our long-term collaborative relationship on critical fisheries and maritime issues.

"Therefore, I am asking you to investigate this situation, raise the issue with your respective counterpart, and make it a priority within our bilateral relations with the Government of Canada to ensure this situation is resolved expeditiously."

The lobster season was scheduled to open Thursday in the Northumberland Strait in the southern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But Ottawa has delayed that until Monday at the request of the fishermen.