Posted May 17, 2020
Lobster fishers in Malpeque Harbour will have to start the season from another port or wait until a dredge can clear a safe path for them through the harbour's shallow channel.
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has informed the Malpeque Habour working group the channel will not be open for setting day on May 15.
“We cannot guarantee safe passage for 6 a.m. Friday morning,” wrote Lori Cuddy, area director for P.E.I. with DFO, in an email to the group after measurements taken Tuesday showed the water to be only a foot deep in places due to the buildup of sand and silt that consistently drifts into the channel.
Malpeque lobster fisherman Chris Wall says a fishing boat needs more than four feet to move safely. Getting caught on the sand could mean damage to the boat and gear and injury or death for those aboard.
Wall tells of boats swamping in the shallows or having to come in backwards (captains have put their boat in reverse and used the propeller to cut a path in the sandy bottom, at the same time, sucking sand and debris into the workings of the engine.)
A dredge has been working since the last week of April to move the more than 20,000 cubic metres of sand farther out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but it will need 20 days working in perfect conditions to complete the job.
Cuddy's email said the Canadian Coast Guard will try to set the navigation marker by this evening.
Around 50 lobster and mussel boats call Malpeque Harbour home.
In order to start the season on time, some of the 30-plus lobster fishers have started to move boats and traps to other harbours.
Starting the season from another wharf means packing a trailer several times over with the dozens of traps and unloading them at a neighbouring wharf, moving the fishing boat and trying to find space to tie up in a full harbour on the busiest day of the season.
“Logistically, physically and emotionally, it’s a fairly large project to up and leave your home harbour and then go sail out of another harbour on setting day with a fully loaded boat,” said Wall.
That's on top of the extra time and distance spent running up the shore, side-on to the swell, to get back to their usual fishing grounds.
Then, after a day on the water, Malpeque fishers will have to truck their catch back to Malpeque Harbour to sell it, which could also impact the health and quality of the lobsters.
“There is quality issues when you’re farther afield. They may be down the list a ways versus getting killed but still, I want to deliver top-quality product to the producer,” said Wall.
Getting in and out of Malpeque Harbour safely has been getting difficult for all users.
More than 15 mussel boats use the wharf nearly year-round.
“I’m only loaded heavy two days of the year, setting and landing. (Mussel boats are) loaded heavy every day of the year. Twenty-five per cent of the mussels on P.E.I. come through Malpeque Harbour,” said Wall.
Wall is the third generation of his family to fish out of Malpeque. There have long been issues with sand in the channel, but the last 10 years have been filled with delays and setbacks.
Last summer, the Malpeque fishers’ season would have been held up by the dredge if it wasn’t for a three-day weather delay which allowed the work to finish up. Wanting to prevent the same issue from happening again, Wall and several others formed a working group of Malpeque Harbour users. They arranged well in advance in hopes of having the channel open on time, but even with a two-week delay to the season, the work still isn’t complete.
“We’re fighting Mother Nature here, and she’s a big competitor,” said Wall. “It’s just a disaster, basically.”
A 2015 study was commissioned by the federal government to evaluate moving the working wharf to inside Malpeque Bay, but so far no action has been taken on the recommendations.
Another federal study is expected to be released next week, with the latest data on the harbour.
Meanwhile, dredging costs have continued to climb and so has the number of close calls.
Cuddy assured the Malpeque fishers that the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir William Alexander will be off the north shore Friday morning and a Zodiac from the search and rescue station in Summerside will be outside of Malpeque Harbour standing by in case of any trouble.