HALIFAX - Complaints from fisheries groups that they weren't consulted about a lobster marketing levy left Nova Scotia's fisheries minister scrambling Monday to clarify remarks he made about the proposal last week.
Organizations representing fishermen and processors expressed surprise over news the government was preparing legislation to be introduced in the fall that would allow it to collect a five-cent levy per pound of lobster — three cents more than recommended in a report released last November.
A three-member panel that reviewed the lobster industry proposed a two-cent levy to boost marketing efforts, with one cent coming from fishermen and the other from buyers and processors. It was estimated about $2.5 million a year could be collected through the fee to help an industry hit by slumping prices in recent years.
Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell said last Thursday following a cabinet meeting that the government will bring about a five-cent levy, with the extra three cents going toward quality assurance. He didn't elaborate.
On Monday, Colwell said the five-cent levy would be part of a pilot project to be conducted in a region not yet identified.
He said the purpose of the levy would be to improve quality of the crustacean by adopting standards "from the boat to the plate."
"A lot of complaints come in about lobsters being shipped that are dead," Colwell said in an interview. "That's just because we don't have the proper equipment or process in place."
He said the pilot project will be announced once a memorandum of understanding is signed and he expects it will take a year to complete.
As for the legislation planned for the fall, Colwell said it would simply establish the framework needed to collect the levy and not specify how much it is.
"It's just the ability to do it and then we'll hold consultations with the industry in different areas of the province," he said.
Colwell's comments came after a couple of fishing groups said they were taken aback by the government's plan to implement the levy because they weren't consulted about it.
Ashton Spinney of the L-34 Management Board in southwestern Nova Scotia, the province's largest lobster fishery, said he isn't sure what Colwell means when he speaks of quality assurance.
"That's got such a wide range on it I wouldn't even dare to guess," Spinney said.
He said in order to secure widespread acceptance of the government's levy proposal, fishermen will need to understand what the money is for and how it will be collected.
Bernie MacDonald, manager of the Ceilidh Fishermen Co-op in Cape Breton, which represents about 100 fishermen, said he is in favour of the two-cent levy. But he said that's not the case across the province.
"There's opposition now at two (cents) especially in southwest Nova and we've got to have them on board or it may not go through," said MacDonald.
Marilyn Clark, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, said there's also opposition from some companies who aren't in favour of any proposal that would see them collect the fees.
"Companies don't want to come off as the tax man and collect for government. It's not really their role to collect from individual fishermen."
But Colwell expressed confidence the pilot project would go a long way in winning over skeptics.
"I think they will be coming to us asking to be involved in the project," said Colwell. "That's what we are hoping will happen and then we can move forward on that basis."