New lobster crisis, just like the old lobster crises

Homarus americanus - caught in Canada

It’s hardly news, the current decline in lobster catches in southwestern Nova Scotia.

In 1873, W.F. Witcher, the Canadian Commissioner of Fisheries, said American lobster harvesters had overfished the species, a trend also evident in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. “Excessive fishing has exhausted the lobster fishery along the north coast of the United States, and … has now been transferred to Canada.[i]

A century and a half later, history is repeating itself – in some ways. Lobster catches have declined dramatically along the northeastern US Coast in recent years, but this time the culprit is seen to be climate change (warming waters), not overfishing.  Industry watchers say early-season catches, between Halifax and Digby, are down 50% or more compared to 2022. In the late 19th Century, lobster canneries closed as catches plummeted on both sides of the border. Just last month, Riverside Lobster International announced it will not operate its state-of-the-art lobster processing plant in Meteghan, NS this winter.

What should government do about this ‘crisis’? Our answer in the CrowsNest – “As little as possible”.

Yes, government must limit harvests, and protect marine environments, but let industry adapt to the changing business climate. After all, Southwest Nova Scotia and the South Shore have long been the innovative and entrepreneurial heart of the Canadian fishery. In the age of sail, in the 1800s, the people of Lunenburg built wooden fishing schooners by the dozens and then crewed the vessels as they plied the waters of the northwest Atlantic to harvest cod. The area’s scallop fleet was a world leader in using satellite mapping of the ocean floor to protect habitat and stocks.

Today, the industry in southern Nova Scotia will respond as species populations yo-yo. (As lobster stocks decline, haddock and halibut are doing OK.  As predatory redfish populations soar today in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, prey species like shrimp seem to be declining in the northwest Atlantic.) Across Atlantic Canada, industry leaders will find new opportunities as marine species populations rise and fall.  Industry leaders in the region – who enjoy the comparative advantage of living near some of the richest fishing grounds on the planet – know from long experience that smart innovation and timely investment can carry the day.

[i] We take the quote from Joseph Gough’s book Managing Canada’s Fisheries: from the early days to the year 2000.