11/23/2014 02:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2015 05:59 EST

Maritime lobster levy delayed until spring, fisheries ministers say

HALIFAX - A promise from the three Maritime provinces to have a levy in place before the end of the year to support a marketing strategy for the region's embattled, $1-billion lobster industry is facing more delays.

The levy, first proposed in a report just over a year ago, would see lobster fishermen and the onshore side of the industry such as processors each pay one cent per pound of lobster caught to cover the cost of advertising campaigns and other strategies to promote their product, which has been plagued by slumping prices in recent years.

The fisheries ministers from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. had promised in March to start collecting the levy before the end of the year, but they now say that won't happen until each province introduces legislation this spring.

The levy would cost the industry about $2.5 million annually, the Maritime lobster panel report said.

Between 2003 and 2013, lobster landings in the Atlantic region jumped by 51 per cent to nearly 74,000 tonnes. However, the landed commercial value of the catch rose only 2.2 per cent to $680 million as prices dropped amid a glut of product.

Fishermen working in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along Nova Scotia's eastern shore reported large catches this spring and fall, but with shore prices hovering around $4 per pound they say it was tough to turn a profit.

Still, prices have been better than last year, when some fishermen tied up their boats for days and refused to empty their traps as prices dropped to $3 a pound in some areas.

While P.E.I. has made the most progress on implementing the levy, New Brunswick's efforts were interrupted by a provincial election in September that saw the Liberals defeat the governing Progressive Conservatives.

As for Nova Scotia, it has faced challenges in communicating its intentions to the fiercely independent lobster fishermen in the province's southwest coast and along the Bay of Fundy shoreline.

"We're a little bit behind," says Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell. "Hopefully we'll have a bill and an agreement by the spring. The last thing we want to do is force a fee on people that they don't want to pay. ... There's got to be buy-in from the industry."

Colwell says that unlike P.E.I. and New Brunswick, where lobster fishermen are organized through associations and unions, the majority of lobster fishermen in Nova Scotia have no such affiliation.

"We're pushing to have more of them organized," he says. "This is a key part of this."

This week, more than 900 licensed fishing vessels will be eligible to set traps off southwest Nova Scotia, a lucrative fishing area that accounts for 40 per cent of the country’s total catch.

Meanwhile, Colwell says the province is pushing ahead with public consultations with fishermen, buyers and processors.

Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, says the organization is preparing a generic marketing strategy to show it will be ready when the money is made available.

"Would we like it to be quicker? Sure," he says, adding that the original, one-year deadline was unrealistic.

"It's all taking more time than expected. But I certainly never expected it to happen in the time prescribed in the Maritime lobster panel report."

He says it's important to remember that the industry is a fragmented one, with more than 40 lobster fishing areas, different fishing seasons and thousands of different players.

New Brunswick Fisheries Minister Rick Doucet says no one should be surprised with the pace of progress, given that he first raised the idea of closer co-operation when he was fisheries minister in 2006 under then-premier Shawn Graham.

"Sometimes these things do take time," says Doucet, sworn in as fisheries minister on Oct. 1.

"It think it's vitally important that everyone comes to the table as quickly as possible to get this resolved so we can move on the levy."

P.E.I. Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley says the Island will be ready to start charging the levy in the spring now that 1,200 members of the P.E.I. Fisherman's Association have voted in favour of the idea.

"We had to go out and sell it," MacKinley says. "I was at every meeting they had across the province."

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