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Deal reached in Newfoundland and Labrador crab fishery, harvesters to start fishing

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A bitter standoff that shut down Newfoundland and Labrador's lucrative snow crab fishery for nearly six weeks came to an end on Friday.
Crab landed on the dock at St. John's Harbour on Thursday, May 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A bitter standoff that shut down Newfoundland and Labrador's lucrative snow crab fishery for nearly six weeks came to an end on Friday.

The union representing inshore fishers and plant workers announced its negotiating team had reluctantly signed a deal with the group representing seafood processors to start the fishery. The deal guarantees prices would not fall below $2.20 a pound — the price fishers were protesting in the first place.

"Nobody on the committee is happy to be signing this deal today," Greg Pretty of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union said in a news release. "Harvesters hoped the market situation would improve over the last several weeks. Those hopes did not materialize, and without a doubt, the committee was backed into a corner."

Crab season opened in most areas on April 10, but fishers kept their boats tied up to protest the $2.20-a-pound offering, which they said was too low to make a living. But the Association of Seafood Producers held fast, saying market conditions had plummeted from last year's highs, when crab prices for harvesters opened at $7.60 a pound.

Snow crab is Newfoundland and Labrador's most valuable seafood export, accounting for more than half — $883 million — of the $1.6 billion generated by the province's fisheries in 2021.

Friday's deal guarantees crab fishers a minimum of $2.20 a pound for their catch, as well as incremental price hikes to $2.75 a pound if the market improves, the union said. The price will be re-evaluated if reports from Urner Barry — a meat and seafood market information agency — show snow crab selling for more than US$6 a pound.

As the stalemate dragged on, the union accused processors of being in a "cartel," while the processors association claimed the union used "bullying and intimidation tactics" to prevent those who wanted to fish from untying their boats. In communities with fish plants that would have normally been processing crab for the past weeks, workers were unemployed and left worrying that they wouldn't get enough hours to qualify for unemployment insurance after the fishing season.

The union said it is lobbying for changes to this year's unemployment insurance qualifications so workers won't be penalized.

"Our members are facing a significant reduction in earnings this year, and they must receive commitment that financial help will be there to help them make it to next season," said Friday's release.

Shortly after the union announced the agreement, the provincial government issued a news release saying the deal was the culmination of a meeting that day between the union, the processors association and Premier Andrew Furey, who thanked the two parties for working together.

"Our government recognizes this has been a challenging time for the hard-working people who power Newfoundland and Labrador’s significant crab fishery," Furey said in the release, which was co-signed by the fishers union and the Association of Seafood Producers.

The release said police "will continue to monitor the situation closely."

Jeff Loder, the association's executive director, said he was "pleased and relieved" about the deal.

"It’s been a troubling few weeks faced with much uncertainty, but we are confident that we can still have a successful fishery, with public safety top of mind," Loder said in the release.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press