07/09/2013 01:51 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick fishermen steamed after feds boost lobster size by one millimetre

The federal government's decision to increase the minimum size of lobsters that can be caught off New Brunswick's east coast by just one millimetre instead of two has angered fishermen from that province who say the ruling will inhibit their ability to reel in profits.

New Brunswick fishermen were calling on Ottawa to boost the minimum lobster carapace size to 73 mm from 71 mm for the fishing season that begins next month. But Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield turned that proposal down, saying the size would increase to 72 mm as planned.

In an industry where millimetres matter, the change can have a far-reaching impact on the livelihoods of fishermen in the Maritimes.

Christian Brun, a spokesman for the Maritime Fishermen's Union, said the decision is disappointing because it means New Brunswick's fishermen will be less able to respond to their consumers' demands for larger lobsters.

"It's very frustrating," Brun said.

For New Brunswick — where the majority of lobsters are sold as tails, predominantly to the United States — bigger is better because larger lobsters fetch higher prices.

"It's more expensive to process smaller-sized lobster because there's not that much meat and there are a lot more labour costs involved," said Brun.

But in Prince Edward Island, a province where the industry is concentrated on canned lobster, Ottawa's ruling was applauded.

About 70 per cent of the nearly 30 million pounds of lobsters caught and sold by P.E.I. fishermen last year were smaller lobsters, said Ian MacPherson, executive director of P.E.I.'s Fishermen's Association.

Another target market for Island lobsters is the cruise ship and resort industry, which prefers the smaller sized crustaceans in order to maintain consistent serving sizes, MacPherson said.

"You never want to lose business, especially in a very competitive market like there is now," he said. "The fact that (the size limit) is not going further is a good decision on the minister's part."

A spokeswoman from Ashfield's office would not elaborate on the rationale behind the decision and declined an interview request.

In announcing his decision Monday, Ashfield said in a statement that any future decisions about the size of lobster carapace would not be made until his department reviews the findings of a panel set up by the three provincial governments in the Maritimes that is looking into the lobster industry.

The panel was established earlier this year to come up with solutions to seasonal volatility in the market after last year's low lobster prices led to protests throughout the region.

New Brunswick fishermen ultimately want the minimum size of carapace — which is the lobster's hard upper shell — to rise to 77 mm by 2015.

"We're not going to abandon this fight," said Brun. "It's not going to happen for this year but who knows for next year."

The ruling will impact the approximately 700 lobster fishermen who hold licences for the portion of the Northumberland Strait from just south of the Confederation Bridge to the northwestern tip of P.E.I.

Of that number, about 470 are from New Brunswick, 200 are from P.E.I. and a little more than a dozen are from Nova Scotia.

The decision affects a fishing zone known as Lobster Fishing Area 25. The nine-week fishery season opens there on Aug. 9.