Some sea urchin harvesters in Notre Dame Bay say the province should not be forced to change legislation that allows them to sell their catches to outside buyers who truck the unprocessed urchins to plants in the U.S.
A recent demonstration by plant workers at Wood-Pick Industries in Wareham sparked debate about whether the legislation should be struck down in order to ensure any sea urchins that are harvested in Newfoundland and Labrador are processed at local plants before being shipped to market.
Currently, the provincial government does not require local processing, and that allows buyers from plants in other parts of Canada and the United States to buy urchins directly from harvesters and truck them out of the province to processing plants in those areas.
“I don’t think we should be kept from working with these outside buyers,” said Jerry Hodder, a sea urchin harvester in Stoneville, northwest of Gander Bay. “These guys that are into this buying business, they put a lot of money into it. The guy that I deal with just bought two new trucks. If they can’t buy from us, that’s going to affect their businesses.”
Hodder said it wouldn’t be fair for the government to tell the buyers one day it’s OK to purchase sea urchins directly from harvesters, and then turn around the next day and say it’s no longer allowed.
“They have made investments into their companies because they were allowed to come in here,” said Hodder. “If you take that right away from them, they’re going to suffer financially.”
Hodder also said some harvesters are concerned about what’s happening these days at the plant in Wareham, which is the only sea urchin processing plant in the province. Before Christmas, management at the plant laid off the workers and ceased processing. Since that time, the plant has been purchasing sea urchins from harvesters and selling them to an outside buyer.
“The plant is partially owned by an outside buyer,” said Hodder. “Here, you’ve got a plant whose owners say they want to process sea urchin, but they’re selling to an outside buyer themselves.”
Andrew Ackerman is the owner of Wood-pick Industries. He confirmed an outside buyer does indeed own shares in the company, but he said that doesn’t influence his operation.
Ackerman also said there is an uneven playing field in the industry that has made it impossible for him to keep the processing side of his business going. He said running his plant forces him to incur costs outside buyers don’t have to pay, such as the money it takes to ensure his plant is in full compliance with government regulations, and the cash required to pay for expenses related to having a workforce, such as employment insurance premiums and other wage-related fees.
He said if the field was levelled, and all buyers, including himself, were paying a fair price for sea urchins, things would be different.
“If things were more fair, I could put 60 people back to work tomorrow,” said Ackerman. “As far as I’m concerned, every sea urchin that’s harvested in this province should have to go through a local fish plant.”
Ackerman said he knows of at least two other individuals in the province who have expressed interest in building processing plants, but only if things are even across the board in regards to the costs incurred by all buyers, both foreign and local.
Currently, all sea urchins harvested in the province are trucked out, mostly to plants in Portland, Maine. They are then processed and shipped to markets, mostly in Asia.
Hodder said as long as harvesters are bringing in more than the Wareham plant can handle — harvesters can bring in close to 500 totes of sea urchins a day during peak parts of the season, while Ackerman said his plant can process between 150 to 200 totes a day, and has the capability of storing up to 1,000 totes at a time — outside buyers should be allowed in the game.
“We’ve got the urchins, and they want them,” said Hodder. “They should be allowed to continue to buy from us if they want to.”