Worker shortage cutting into lobster processing capacity

Eric McCarthy
Published on June 6, 2014
Lobster fishing

ROSEBANK -- A West Prince seafood processor says he would be able to buy 50 per cent more lobster if he were able to fill all the spots on his processing line.

David Dalton said South Shore Seafoods, a company he co-owns in Bloomfield and Rosebank, has been advertising for workers all spring but is still operating well below capacity.

“We probably have hired everybody who applied,” Dalton said of the company’s effort to fill the processing line.

South Shore, he said, currently has about 85 workers between its raw product plant in Bloomfield and the processing plant in Rosebank. Dalton estimates he could easily accommodate 30 to 50 more workers.

Besides the shortage of available local workers, Dalton said the company has been experiencing difficulty acquiring help through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

The company, Dalton said, only has about 40 per cent of the foreign workers it had last year despite a need for more. The only foreign workers on staff so far this season, he said, are ones who returned from last year; no new applications have been approved. “It’s just the (Temporary Foreign Worker) Program is not working,” Dalton said, indicating his company has been trying to work through the process since last fall. “There’s nobody being denied a job here because of foreign workers,” he emphasized. There has also been a bit of a gender shift on staff with more male workers than previously, he noted.

“If we had 50 per cent more workers, we could do 50 per cent more product,” Dalton said in explaining the impact of the job shortage.

The situation at South Shore seems to hold true across P.E.I. Dennis King, executive director of the Seafood Processors Association said a check of Island processing plants has found an overall shortage of about 400 plant workers, including applications for between 125 and 150 foreign workers that have yet to be filled.

Despite the shortage of workers, plants were managing to keep up with the supply of lobsters until catches improved a little over a week when the water temperature rose and lobsters started moving around more. Since then many fishermen have been placed on daily boat quotas and some fishermen have not being able to find sale for their catch at all.

“It’s been a challenging few days,” King acknowledged, but suggested the nasty weather at week’s end might actually relieve some of the glut and allow plants to start to catch up with the supply.

King said processors knew even before the season started there was going to be a worker shortage, but he suggested the situation was masked for the first three weeks when cooler than normal temperatures kept the catches down. “Then the weakness got exposed,” he added.

The worker shortage does not just affect the May and June fishing season here, Dalton said, indicating some plants, including South Shore, hope to continue processing right into October.

South Shore would be in position to hire even more workers next year once all of the raw product line gets shifted from Rosebank to Bloomfield, thereby opening up space for additional processing capacity in Rosebank, Dalton indicated.