FREDERICTON — Fishermen began setting traps Friday as the spring lobster season opened across much of the Maritimes, but processors in New Brunswick warn they'll be turning some lobster away because of a shortage of workers.
At issue is the halt on temporary foreign workers entering New Brunswick imposed last month by Premier Blaine Higgs as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Higgs said at the time there were already about 1,500 temporary foreign workers in the province who, along with 70,000 unemployed New Brunswickers, could fill the jobs of fish processors and agriculture workers.
The province even organized a virtual job fair, but many jobs remain vacant.
"We were getting 120 foreign workers," said Luc Doiron of Suncoast Seafood in Grande-Digue, N.B. "Obviously none of them are in so, we are replacing them with a few Canadians, but not much. We'll be down at least 50 per cent of what we can normally process."
He said he has only managed to make four or five new local hires. Doiron said many of his temporary foreign workers had been coming for years and held key positions on the production line.
He said he's turning away business that will go to plants in other provinces, and it may be impossible to get that business back in the future. "For us to run our plant at 50 per cent capacity and try to turn a profit is going to be very difficult," he said.
On Friday, Higgs wasn't prepared to say his ban on the foreign workers was a mistake. Instead he said the decision was made on public health grounds, adding that it may have been a factor in the province having just one active case of the virus Friday.
Higgs said it was disappointing that 70,000 people are unemployed in the province and yet so few have applied for the posted jobs.
He said the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which provides $500 per week for up to 16 weeks, is dissuading people from applying for the jobs.
"Yes it has been a factor, and one we have discussed across the country," Higgs said, calling it "the federal program of paying people four months to stay home and not to need to even look for a job."
But Doiron downplayed the program's impact, saying he has been trying to hire New Brunswickers to work in his plant for the last decade with little success.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers said the decision to stop temporary foreign workers from entering was a big mistake.
"There were proper protocols in place to ensure quarantines, social distancing, and all the aspects would have been done," Vickers said. "There's no question in my mind that this could have been done in a safe and responsible manner without endangering the health of New Brunswickers."
Higgs said he will continue to work with processors to find a solution.
The spring lobster season opened two weeks later than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fishing industry worked with public health officials to ensure operations could begin while respecting measures such as social distancing.
High winds prompted fishermen in one area along the Cape Breton coast to delay their opening until Saturday morning.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2020.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press