Canada’s decision to close the border to some foreign visitors threatens to upend the Atlantic lobster and snow crab processing industry.
The processing plants rely on thousands of mostly Mexican temporary foreign workers who are no longer allowed into the country. The restriction applies to travellers who are not Canadian citizens, permanent residents or Americans.
The restrictions were imposed Monday, just one month before the opening of the lucrative snow crab fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Lobster fishing in the area, as well as in eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, will open at the same time or a few weeks later.
Jerry Amirault of the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia says the industry, which produces for Canadian and export markets, would like to see an exemption to the travel ban on the grounds the workers are needed in food production.
“We’re discussing it with people connected to the cabinet because that’s where the decisions are made,” he said. “Always being respectful of public health and safety, we’re also concerned about our own workers in the remote villages in rural areas to make sure they would feel comfortable returning to work and work is approximately 30 days away.”
Without them, the industry says processing plants will not be able to handle spring landings and the large amounts of live lobster currently being held in southwest Nova Scotia.
“Nothing is known as to how long the ban exists and nothing is known when these markets will return,” Amirault said. “The thing we want the federal government to address is more towards the food supply issue that we’re part of. If they can make an exemption under that, then we can slowly start converting some of this raw material into edible food.”
The processing industry is trying to figure out how much it can handle when the seasons open in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and is talking to fisherman’s groups about what they can do “to help mitigate the oversupply” in a time of slumping markets.
Amirault suggests the processors will look to Ottawa for help financially if the plants carry excessively large inventories.
“If we freeze it, it’ll maintain some value, but it will take an enormous amount of money if we are not able to sell anything,” he said.
Marilyn Clark runs Port to Port Immigration Services, a two-year-old Halifax company that recruits Mexican workers for seafood processing.
“I’ve had some foreign workers working in southwest Nova Scotia … that have had to be sent home for lack of work,” she said.
Clark said plants were factoring coronavirus into their operations, from arranging housing to having nurses available to monitor vitals daily.
“That’s what we were going to do to operate, but that was taken off the table yesterday,” she said on Tuesday.
“It is devastating.”
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