Canadian lobster exports have biggest year ever, topping $3.2B last year

Nova Scotia

Soaring sales of Canadian frozen and processed lobster in the United States during 2021 accounted for most of the increase.

Soaring sales of Canadian frozen and processed lobster in the United States during 2021 accounted for most of a sharp increase in export value.(Shutterstock)

The value of Canadian lobster exports topped $3.2 billion last year — the highest ever and more than $700 million higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to new trade data.

Soaring sales of Canadian frozen and processed lobster in the United States during 2021 accounted for most of the increase.

"We had a very strong bounce back from the pandemic as people ate premium protein that they bought in grocery stores. They wanted healthy food, they wanted safe food and they wanted a treat. So they buy lobster," said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, an industry trade group.

For comparison's sake, Statistics Canada valued lobster in 2019 at $2.5 billion.

Two years later, the value of live lobster exported to the biggest markets — United States and China — remained relatively flat.

U.S. sales of frozen and processed lobster

Live exports to the U.S. were $522 million in 2021, compared to $517 million in 2019.

Live exports to China were $454 million in 2021, down slightly from $457 million in 2019.

The big change was in frozen and processed lobster sales to the United States, which were up $240 million and $300 million, respectively, from 2019.

Irvine said that frozen products have typically always had slightly more export value overall than live.

Last year the ratio was 61:39.

"I think some of that was pandemic-related in that people bought frozen products at retail and in very large volumes for many different reasons," said Irvine. "And live lobster is typically a food service product, so there were less people going out to restaurants.

"It'll be interesting to see if it continues as a trend. But there was quite a remarkable differentiation last year."

Lobster population health: stock assessment

There's more good news for Canada's most lucrative fishery.

The lobster population off southern Nova Scotia remains healthy and is increasing at a faster rate than landings, according to a 2021 stock assessment from Canadian scientists.

Lobster Fishing Area 34, or LFA 34, as it is described by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, accounts for 20 per cent of all lobster landed in Canada and 10 per cent of North American landings.

"The stock is considered to be in the healthy zone … overfishing is not occurring," Fisheries and Oceans noted in its latest LFA 34 stock assessment.

Trawl surveys indicate the three-year average of harvestable lobster is anywhere from 220 per cent to 459 per cent above levels considered healthy.

"I think it's in line with most LFAs through the whole of eastern Canada," said Irvine. "Landings are generally very good, and everything that I hear when I sit in on the advisory committee meetings is that recruitment looks very good.

"It bodes well for the future for the lobster sector."

'We've got a very strong lobster market'

For the past five years, the 979 licensed commercial fishermen in LFA 34 — including 35 "communal-commercial" licenses held by First Nations — catch an average of 23,424 metric tonnes annually.

Even though landings peaked in 2016, the value of the catch continues to soar thanks to high prices.

In late February, lobster was fetching a record-high price of $16 a pound at the wharf.

Data provided to CBC News by Fisheries and Oceans showed the value of lobster harvested on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy in 2021 was $898 million.

More than $204 million of that came in one month — December — when the season opened from Halifax to Digby.

"We've got a very strong lobster market out there. It doesn't surprise me," Irvine said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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