03/26/2014 04:30 EDT | Updated 05/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Fisheries ministers seek consensus to implement lobster marketing levy

HALIFAX - Fisheries ministers from the three Maritime provinces say they're hoping for industry consensus to implement a fee to promote lobsters that would be paid by fishermen, buyers and processors.

The ministers began a two-day meeting Wednesday in Halifax with harvesting and processing groups in an effort to strengthen the struggling lobster industry.

They are discussing a proposed levy of one cent per pound to be paid by fishermen, and another cent per pound to be paid by the onshore side of the industry to do a better job branding the crustacean.

Fisheries Minister Michael Olscamp of New Brunswick said industry agreement with the levy would give the three governments the green light to pass laws and create funding for marketing lobsters.

"It's very important the levy be introduced because of the potential it offers in terms of making this a more efficient industry," Olscamp said. "If we could have a consensus with the levy or at least a consensus to move forward in an expedient matter, I'd be happy about that."

The levy was an idea recommended last year by a three-member panel that reviewed the lobster industry. The panel estimated it would raise about $2.5 million a year.

Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell and his P.E.I. counterpart Ron MacKinley said their governments could simply impose the levy, but they would rather do so with the industry clearly behind it.

"Exactly how we'd do it, I'm not sure yet," Colwell said. "We can do it through regulation, not legislation. We could impose it, but I'd rather do it in conjunction with the industry."

Colwell said one challenge is that there are more than 25 groups representing lobster fishermen in his province, and there is no umbrella group to speak for all of the harvesters.

MacKinley said he has a far easier task in his province.

"My job is going to be easy in Prince Edward because we have one organization and we have them supporting the levy," said MacKinley.

The New Brunswick branch of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, one of the region's largest fishermen's groups, is boycotting the meeting over a disagreement with Ottawa's decision to boost the minimum lobster carapace size by one millimetre rather than two millimetres.

But the organization has passed a resolution saying it favours the levy and is urging the provincial governments to act quickly.

During a question-and-answer session with deputy fisheries ministers, representatives from 10 harvesting and processing groups all said they favoured the levy.

Brian Guptill, president of the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association in New Brunswick, said his 180-member group backs the levy but wants to be assured it won't keep rising to fund areas besides marketing.

"If we can spend two cents to make a dollar, it can't hurt," he said.

He said he expects a series of national campaigns like the ones created to market milk, beef, mussels and other food.

Robert Courtney, president of the North of Smokey Fishermen's Association, said his Cape Breton-based group would also like the levy to go ahead.

"I doubt anyone will hold out against the levy," Courtney said. "But the first thing that has to happen is a body be put in place and it be accountable to ensure funds are spent in a proper way. ... Don't write a blank cheque."

The panel report also concluded that fishermen and the various processing and buying groups involved in the lobster industry lack information, concentrate on quantity over quality, and don't co-operate with each other.

The report also said Canadian fishermen have been losing market share to better-organized competitors in Maine and recommended a minimum price-setting mechanism be set up by industry groups and enforced by provincial governments. It said if the industry had stable prices and joint marketing efforts, the chaotic rush to be first to fish for lobster may decline.

But at the outset of the meeting, all three provincial governments said they found fishing groups in their jurisdictions were unlikely to quickly agree on such a price-setting system.