Reconsidering the lobster, the lobster worker and the burning lobster factory


“Consider the lobster” wrote the late David Foster Wallace in his famous essay on visiting the annual Maine Lobster Festival. So let’s.

I was surprised by the news of the March 1st fire at Paturel’s lobster plant on Deer Island. This is the second fire there in the last two years, this one putting 130 people out of work. Reports say they won’t be back to work for two years—bad news for a small island that already has high unemployment and limited job opportunities.

Canada produces about a third of the world’s lobster. Half of that—25,000 metric tonnes a year—comes from New Brunswick. Today a live 1-pound lobster sells online for $13.50 US. Doing the math, New Brunswick’s annual catch comes to $742,500,000 US. The province’s processed (frozen) lobster alone, not including live lobsters, hauls in between $400 and $500 million a year, according to the Lobster Council of Canada. That’s big business.

Back in the 1930s there were over 700 lobster canning plants in Canada. A century before that lobster was considered “poverty food”, but canning, distribution and food shortages during two world wars turned lobster into a delicacy. Inevitably, increased harvesting and efficient canning factories took a toll on lobster stocks. In 1860, Maine lobsterman James P. Baxter reported that 4- to 5-pounders were “small”, and 2-pounders were routinely tossed as not worth the bother. Twenty years later the canneries were using half-pounders.

Lobsters do not reproduce easily. Yes, they can spawn up to 20,000 hatchlings at a time. But most of that is eaten by just about everything—including other lobsters. A female lobster can only mate just after she sheds her shell. Before molting she seeks out a male, and sprays pheromones to attract him and to neutralize his aggression. Then she moves into his den, molts, and while naked and vulnerable, mates. She stores his sperm, regrows her shell, and 9 to 11 months later ejects thousands of eggs—that get fertilized on the way out by the sperm she’s stored. A sticky substance glues the eggs to her tail for another week or two before they hatch and release into the ocean. Where most of them are eaten. Of every 10,000 eggs hatched, only 10 survive.

Point being, it’s tough being a lobster. And tougher to get big. Humans like large lobsters, because unlike most meat, lobster meat gets more tender as the lobster grows. And because lobster meat doesn’t store or travel well, it has to be eaten or flash frozen immediately after it’s killed. A lobster’s life may be tough but it’s meat is fragile.

Foster Wallace describes lobsters being boiled alive. He writes, the lobster “tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water…they even try to hook their claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof…The lobster…behaves much like you or I would.”

But what of the lobster worker? As it turns out, half of them are not locals, they’re foreign. Back in 2014 Paturel won a legal proceeding against the federal government about foreign workers’ wages. The government based its numbers on median EI payouts at $13.79 per hour for similar work. Paturel argued for the local median wage, $11.25 per hour, and won. That low wage might be one of the reasons the company hires foreign workers.

It seems the life of a lobster worker may be nearly as tough as the life of a lobster. A quick scan online about working at Paturel reveals a few clues: “by far the worst place i could ever think to work. excruciatingly long hours, ignorant and selfish management, be expected to work some 16-18 hour days, 6 days a week, and at the end of the week, get told that you didn't work hard enough. never a clear idea on what's going on. constantly re-doing the same work over and over and over because they can't seem to make up their minds. basic slavework.”

Alternatively: “we have a lot of good co-workers. the typical at work is only seasonal. sometimes we work 3 days only and the time is like only 4 hours. i learn how communicate to other people even i am a filipino…the management is to good.”

A CBC headline reads: “Paturel unlikely to provide compensation after fire employees say.” And the local paper reports that half the workers will be back to work in a few weeks.

Definitely food for thought. Thinking back to the salmon, cod and herring industries, you have to wonder about the long term sustainability of satisfying one third of the world’s appetite for lobster—and who’s keeping all the money.

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