Guest Contribution by Shandel Brown
The wharf in Chéticamp was a buzz of activity lately. Fishermen here and around the Maritimes tied up their boats for a week this month, refusing to go out to empty their traps when they are being paid less than the ever-increasing cost of their bait and fuel. At a record low price of $3.75/lb they will not be able to break even this season. After checking on their boats in the morning and chatting about the results of the fishing association meeting in Antigonish the night before, the fishermen congregate around the back of their trucks to discuss the latest news regarding lobster prices. Most recently they’ve heard that Clearwater, the buyer they sell their lobster to, has been charged by Loblaws for being unable to provide enough lobster to the grocery store chain to fulfill their contract. A minor victory, but it provides some hope that the ripples of their protest are having an impact further up the line.
The fishing industry can be highly competitive with distinct fishing territories for each community and fisherman going to all lengths to protect their territory from others. A lobsterman might find his trap lines tangled in a knot, or worse cut from the buoy that allows him to find it again, if he drops his traps too close to the boundary of another fisherman’s territory. In a small fishing village the friendly banter between friends and relatives at the tavern in town can turn to aggressive territoriality if the unspoken rules around fishing etiquette are not upheld on the water. Most days, however, the interactions between fishermen are good-natured and friendly.
The Chéticamp wharf, locally known as “La Digue” has been an important place in this small Acadian fishing community for many years. The wharf here has seen many changes, from a series of small wooden wharves surrounded by the colourful houses of the fishermen who lived there to the industrial, paved wharf complete with a crab processing plant that exists today. Throughout these different physical phases however, the wharf has remained an important place for neighbors and friends to gather each morning during the fishing season to chat about their catches, different ways to regulate their stocks, and the fluctuating price the buyers are offering.
On the third day of the protest in Chéticamp, as the last crab boat of the day started unloading its catch into the large transport truck waiting at the side of the wharf, the fishermen standing around got to talking. This truck takes the live crab to a processor in New Brunswick that accepts both crab and lobster and is one of the players that determine the buying price at the wharf. The fishermen scheme about what they can do to have their voices heard. As soon as the boat is unloaded and the crab fisherman has been handed his payment slip, the others strategically park their trucks in front of the transport truck so that it cannot leave the wharf. They maintained the blockade for about 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon before allowing the freight truck to leave. It was more of a warning than anything, but meant to illustrate that they mean business.
Many fishermen on the wharf that day described the protests as one of the first times fishermen from around the province have been able to gather in the same room and actually agree on something. There seems to be a sense of pride in joining a movement with fishermen across the region. They hope that decision-makers who often have very little idea about the day-to-day challenges these small-scale fishermen face will hear their combined voices. The length and impact of the protests remains to be seen, but for the moment the lobster fishermen in Chéticamp assured me that they are willing to do anything it takes to maintain their livelihoods, support their families, and remain in the place they call home.
Shandel Brown is a Master’s student at the University of Waterloo, studying sense of place and climate change adaptation in Atlantic Canada.