© Eric McCarthy/Journal Pioneer
Boats in Northport are piled high with traps as fishermen await Thursday's start of the spring lobster fishery.
The first new lobster processing licence in more than a decade was issued Wednesday evening, and another new application has been submitted — developments Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley sees as positive signs for P.E.I.’s lobster industry.
Red Cove Seafood Products Inc. in Howard’s Cove was delivered its new processing licence at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Another proposed plant by South Shore Seafoods Ltd. is still being assessed by the department, and a third licence application was submitted to the department Thursday.
MacKinley says he is pleased to see interest from companies looking to opening processing facilities in Prince Edward Island.
“This means there is another processing plant available to process lobsters here in the province. I’d like to see more, but you have to remember, it’s private business. They have to come forward.”
These mark the first new applications to be considered by the department since the province’s agreement with Ocean Choice expired on April 14. That deal prohibited the government from issuing any new lobster processing licences for the last 10 years as part of the company’s deal to take over the failed Polar Foods.
MacKinley has often pointed to this deal — signed under the former Progressive Conservative administration — as a bad one for the industry. He has long said it kept new companies interested in processing lobster from setting up shop in P.E.I.
But on Thursday, Opposition MLA Colin LaVie accused MacKinley of misleading Islanders about this for the last 10 years.
He produced a cabinet document from 1994 — the date on which the Liberal government of the day placed a moratorium on any new seafood processing licences in P.E.I. That 20-year-old moratorium remains in place to this day.
“The moratorium was actually put in place by his government in 1994, not as a result of the OCI contract as he would have had Islanders believe,” LaVie said.
LaVie also pointed out MacKinley was an elected member of that Liberal caucus in 1994, although he was not in cabinet at that time.
MacKinley acknowledges the moratorium is still in place, but it only disallows issuing any more than 19 licences. Currently, there are only eight plants actively processing lobster.
Reaching the maximum under the moratorium would be good news for the industry, and if it happens, government has the option of simply lifting the moratorium, MacKinley said.
“When I hit the number 19, then we’ll see if it’s in the best interest of the public to issue more after that,” he said.
But LaVie pointed to the fact that, for the last 10 years, government could have issued licenses to prospective processing companies, as there are 11 licences that have not been used for many years.
“The minister of fisheries has had 11 unused lobster processing licences that this government has failed to fill. Minister, why has your government played politics and failed to attract businesses to operate these licences for the last eight years?”
MacKinley conceded they could indeed have issued the licences, but the companies would have had to operate within the facilities that originally received the licences — a stumbling block many companies found too restrictive.