Based on Environment and Climate Change (ECC) Canada’s latest predictions for continued high winds and high tides off the coasts of Nova Scotia, it would be surprising for that country to kick off its 2018-2019 lobster harvest – the event famously known as “Dumping Day” -- before Friday afternoon at the earliest.

There was little argument between a group of nearly 30 government and industry officials representing multiple federal agencies and fishing groups that harvest in lobster fishing areas (LFAs) 33 and 34, off the province’s southern and western coasts, when they met in a telephone conference on Monday morning, Jean-Marc Couturier, an ECC meteorologist, told Undercurrent News.

The call participants were unanimous that it was not yet safe enough to take to the sea, said Couturier, who had kicked off the call by giving his agency’s weather forecast for the area. As Undercurrent reported earlier, the group agreed to reconvene for another call and decision on Wednesday morning.

For a copy of his predictions to the group, Couturier pointed to his agency’s website, where a gale warning was maintained for Tuesday evening.

“Wind east 35 to 45 knots (40.2 to 51.7 miles per hour) diminishing to southwest 20 to 25 this afternoon and to light Wednesday morning,” the site advised. “Wind increasing to west 20 Wednesday evening. … Seas 2 to 3 meters, building to 4 to 6 early this morning, then subsiding to 2 to 3 early this evening. Seas subsiding to 2 Wednesday evening.”

The conditions don’t improve much until Friday afternoon, with winds at 35 knots on Thursday and 25 knots on Friday morning. Later on Friday the winds are expected to drop to a passable 10 to 15 knots.

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“The first window of opportunity could be Friday afternoon and into the weekend,” Couturier told Undercurrent. “At least until Friday, there is probably no go.”

The lobster harvesting industry has established that wind speeds of 25 knots (28.8 mph) or greater are too dangerous for their relatively small boats. But stronger winds the day before going to sea can also prevent the harvesters from loading up their vessels, as was the case over the past weekend, the Canadian meteorologist said.

Couturier, who has three decades of meteorological experience and has delivered Dumping Day-related weather predictions to the lobster industry for a dozen years, explained that his team bases its forecasts on a combination of observations made by ship reports, weather buoys, automated stations and satellite information fed into a software modeling program. He said the ability to give accurate predictions has gotten easier. 

“What we were once doing within 36 hours we can probably do now within 60 to 72 hours and give a pretty good indication of the future,” he said.

“With the thought of safety in mind, these numbers are hard numbers,” Couturier said. “Sometimes they may indicate that, oh, the winds are diminishing today and the conditions are going to be good, but then you start looking at the sea state and the waves and all of sudden you see that offshore there might be waves of two to three meters and with a small vessel that’s loaded with traps... So, in that case it’s an easy decision. It’s no go for the safety of the fishermen and the crew.”

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The postponement of Dumping Day due to weather concerns is more common than not. There’s only been one occasion in the last five years when the new Canadian lobster season started on the last Monday of November, the traditional date on which the occasion is always scheduled, Couturier said. In 2014, the season opened six days late.

While climate change is being blamed for many of North America’s recent weather disturbances, he said he didn’t think it would be fair to blame it for the delay of Dumping Day this year. Water temperatures have been a degree colder than usual on the Atlantic Coast at 7 degrees Celsius (44.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and 12 degrees Celsius (53.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Gulf of Maine. 

‘There is pent up demand on the live side’

To say Dumping Day is a big deal to the Canadian lobster industry is an understatement. The nearly 31,000 metric tons harvested from LFAs 33 and 34 in the country’s 2017-2018 lobster season constituted about a third of the overall roughly 93,000t harvest.

And this year, dock prices are expected to be strong. The much smaller LFA 35, which kicked off its second season on Oct. 15, is paying CAD 7 ($5.28) and higher per lb, Stewart Lamont, the managing director of Tangier Lobster, a large Nova Scotia-based processor and exporter, told Undercurrent.

Wholesale prices, meanwhile, are running 25% higher with CAD 11.25 ($8.48) being paid for one-pound lobsters, CAD 14.75 ($11.12) being paid for two-pound lobsters and processed lobsters fetching CAD 6.50 ($4.90).  

Lamont warns, however, that there is no way to determine what the market will settle on after Dumping Day when the 300 harvesters working in LFA 35 are joined by another 1,800 in the other, more prolific LFAs.

“It’ll be a function of the volume of the catch, the weather conditions and the quality of the lobster that’s harvested,” he said.  

Meanwhile, the lobster market, especially in China, is waiting eagerly. 

“There is pent up demand on the live side,” Lamont said. “The July 6 tariff imposed by China on American seafood has changed our lives for the time being.”

Since the middle of September Canada has had trouble keeping enough lobsters in storage to handle the requests, Lamont said. On Monday alone, Tangier had seven emails from Chinese buyers inquiring about the availability of its lobsters. More typical is an email every two days, he said.

Kevin Ross, president of the Brazil Rock 33/34 Lobster Association, a group that represents about 750 fishermen in the LFAs, also is reluctant to guess at the price that will be paid his members and said they will likely be harvesting for a week before they know. Last year it took two weeks before the price was established.

But Ross said it’s typical for the harvesters in LFAs 33 and 34 to get paid a dollar less than the earlier-opened zones. As a result of the low prices, he said he typically holds a quarter of his catch for a later sale.

'It's more or less a fisherman's agreement'

Ross said he and most of his members are okay with the delay of Dumping Day as long as the conditions are dangerous.

Canada’s Bay of Fundy, in which LFA 34 harvesters must travel, is notorious for its rough seas and has some of the highest tides in the world. And fishermen drowning has become an all-too common occurrence.

Canada’s four Atlantic maritime provinces have already lost 17 fishermen to drownings in 2018, Ross noted. That’s the most since 2004 when the same number was lost. By contrast, three fishermen were lost to drownings in Canada in all of 2017 and eight were lost in 2016.

Ross said he doesn’t want to set a new record this year. Harvesters won’t risk their lives to put their traps out early either, he said. Also, regulations prohibit it.

“It’s more or less a fisherman’s agreement, not something that’s written in stone,” Ross told Undercurrent about not setting traps out early. “But also [Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, or DFO] is involved and they put a variation order out that nobody can set their traps until the season’s open.”

Ross is referring to variation orders 124 and 125, published Saturday by DFO, which tentatively reset the start dates for LFAs 33 adn 34 on Dec. 31. That date will be moved up as soon as Dumping Day is decided, a DFO spokesperson clarified.

Those trying to get a jump on things might consider what happened to the 33 harvesters charged with violating Canada’s lobster regulations so far this year by fishing out of season. They saw fines of CAD 2,500 and, in some cases, had their fishing gear seized.

But harvesters aren’t taking it easy between now and the beginning of the season, Ross assured. They’re working now to prepare their boats.

One advantage for the harvesters in LFAs 33 and 34 is that they are typically done before endangered whales arrive in area waters, Ross said. Regardless, he and another harvester have purchased two hydrophones to detect whale sounds within 10 kilometer ranges. Last season a whale arrived in the Gulf of Maine the day after the season ended, he said.