Canada’s spring lobster season got off to a very slow start this year, with cold temperatures and rough seas delaying fishermen from putting to sea to harvest these internationally-prized crustaceans.
Picture: Jennifer (lobster purchaser at Pittman Seafoods) inspecting the catch on board.
The main lobster season in Canada (in the Gulf of St. Lawrence) starts on the 1st of May and runs until the end of June (a second season starts on the 10th of August and closes the 10th of October). Historically, during and after the spring season, lobster production escalates dramatically, but the three opening weeks passed with harvesters landing very little end product.
Fortunately, the weather started to improve at the start of the fourth week and fishermen got out to sea – but even with long periods of warmer temperatures, there are doubts as to whether the catchers will be able to make up for the initial shortfall by the season’s end.
In the past when Canada has faced such supply issues, buyers have been able to tap into inventories of live lobster in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, this region’s harvest from the last winter’s fishery was not a strong one. At the same time, the demand for live lobster has further increased this year, especially from Asian markets, so inventories are low.
Consequently, there is a lot of aggressive buying of lobsters taking place in the seafood marketplace – not just in Canada, but across many key regions. Unsurprisingly, the low supply and high demand scenario has made the current price situation for Canadian lobsters very unstable – a trend that has been well documented in the media. Indeed, prices have been at considerably higher levels than last season, which was also challenged by similar climatic issues.
The good news is that due to CETA agreement (The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement Implementation Act), the import duties on lobster from Canada will go down step by step over a period of 4 to 5 years. A first decrease should be in the coming weeks/months, but there is no fixed date yet. We are following up on this very closely.
Lobster is one of Canada’s most valuable seafood exports, with around three-quarters of the harvest exported to the United States – a market that continues to benefit from a strong currency and where the demand for cooked lobster meat and tails is particularly strong.
Asia has also become an important buyer of the product in recent years; most notably, lobster consumption is growing at a very rapid rate among the middle classes in China. Europe, meanwhile, is a relatively modest but growing market for the product. Combined, all of this demand is exerting unprecedented pressure on the resources currently available.
Customers of Pittman Seafoods will be pleased to know that despite the diminished supply of lobsters, the company has formed strong relationships with reliable Canadian lobster-producer partners over many years, which means it has been able to guarantee the volume of high-quality lobsters at a fair but reflective market price.
The Prince Edward Island (PEI) lobster trap fishery is the main source of lobsters for Pittman Seafoods. The company also prefers to source lobsters from the spring season because they tend to have a hard shell and the animals have a high meat content.
This fishery has been exporting its products around the world since the 1870s and is widely regarded as one of Canada’s most iconic lobster fisheries. As such, safeguarding the marine environment remains a primary objective. As well as having two short lobster seasons, fishermen are also restricted in the number of lobster traps they can use. These traps must be equipped with biodegradable panels to eliminate the potential of so-called “ghost fishing” through lost lobster catching gear.
Further conservation initiatives include the release of all undersize lobsters, female lobsters bearing eggs, as well as those females of optimum breeding sizes. There are also long-term sustainability plans, such as lobster buyback programmes that reduce the size of the fleet and the demand on the fishery.
In 2014, the PEI lobster trap fishery achieved Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. Accreditation was the result of the combined efforts of PEI Fishermen’s Association, the PEI Seafood Processors Association, the Abegweit First Nation and the Lennox Island First Nation.
MSC said the certification of this fishery was an example of a co-management approach, as participants in the PEI lobster fishery worked with Fisheries and Oceans Canada Gulf Region to attain certification against the standard. The provincial Department of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Rural Development assisted the harvesting and processing groups throughout the assessment.
In 2016, Maine also achieved MSC certification for its lobster fishery. This is another important source of sustainably-certified lobsters for Pittman Seafoods to provide to its customers.
Pittman Seafoods only buys lobsters for distribution in Europe, with Benelux, Germany and France providing its main markets. The bulk of the volume has traditionally been supplied to retail chains in these countries, but it also supplies foodservice businesses that then sell to the restaurant trade. Some lobster volumes also go to meal manufacturer customers.
Essentially, there are two very different products in Pittman’s lobster portfolio. The first is whole cooked frozen lobster, which is mainly sold to retail as a commodity product and is the most established and traditional product. The second is a relatively new, raw ultra-high pressure (UHP) lobster product.
The latter is a high-end item and is the result of a very close connection with a particular producer in Canada. The UHP process extracts all of the lobster meat at once, with products proving particularly popular in the foodservice sector. Thanks to this relationship, Pittman is able to overcome the market headwinds to secure sufficient high-quality volume to continue to meet growth.