A ferry repair 'nightmare' for island fisheries as lobster season begins

A planned six-week refit for the ferry servicing Grand Manan has dragged on into the first week of lobster season, and that's impacting a major economic driver for the island, according to village mayor Bonnie Morse.

The Grand Manan Adventure was set for a scheduled six-week refit and was supposed to be back in service this past weekend, Morse said. With lobster season kicking off Monday, that's meant the smaller Grand Manan V has been on the hook to carry the catch, as well as islanders, back to the mainland.

"There was a lot of work that they had to do, so we knew it was going to be a longer-term thing than what was normal," she said. "For Grand Manan, the lobster fishery is the backbone of our economy and it's vitally important that we have the ferry capacity to be able to ship lobster, because it's a live product. It needs to get off the island quickly and in a timely fashion."

The Adventure, delivered in 2009, can carry 360 passengers and 82 cars. The V, registered in 1990, can carry 300 passengers and 60 cars, according to the province. The Grand Manan route is operated by Coastal Transport Limited, which also runs to Deer Island and White Head Island.

"With it only being the V that's still on the run, it just doesn't have the capacity to take up with the demand from our major industry during the most critical time for that industry," she said, saying they're hopeful to see the boat return this coming weekend.

Provincial department of transportation and infrastructure spokesperson Tyler McLean said in an email that the "intent" was to have the Adventure back this past weekend.

"With a significant north Atlantic storm in the forecast in the coming days, the vessel’s return will likely be delayed until early next week," McLean said Thursday. "Coastal Transport will continue to focus on maximizing each load on the Grand Manan V until the Adventure returns."

Morse said the issue is that there isn't enough capacity on the secondary ship to "keep up with the economy of Grand Manan." She said they've had "ongoing conversations" with the province about the 33-year-old ship nearing the end of its lifespan.

"It takes a long time to acquire another ferry ... it's a major investment for the province, obviously, but it's one that we need to to start having that conversation about," she said, noting that it took about 10 years to get the Adventure from the start of the process.

McLean said that the province "is still exploring options for meeting capacity needs into the future."

Morse, who also works as a program co-ordinator at the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association, said those in the fishing industry tried to be ready for this event and "are taking what steps they can," but if the vessel is delayed through to next week, it "really starts to get more and more challenging, because we're that much further into the season, and there's that much more product coming to shore."

Wayne Green, of MG Fisheries, says it's been "very difficult for us the past six weeks." His company purchases and ships lobster to New York as well as salmon from St. George to New England states, as well as rockweed from Pennfield. He said the ferry has been full "almost every trip."

"There were some loads I actually turned down because the ferry is such a nightmare," he said.

While full lobster loads get precedence on the ferry, he said that it's hard for drivers without loads to get off the island, or to get back on. He said he's had drivers with reservations who find them gone by the time they arrive.

"That one ferry is not sufficient service," he said. "If you put someone in this position who doesn't live on an island, they'll pull their hair out."

However, he said that lobster itself has not been an issue because this year's catch is "way way down," with early indications suggesting as much as 30 per cent.

Morse said that each year, the start of the season is a time when all hands are on deck to ensure that equipment is set up and things are good to go. She said it was "a "beautiful day to set traps" Monday, and that while the catch seems low so far, it's early in the season.

Morse said that the "landed value of lobster," or the price that fishers receive when they bring it ashore, is in the $70 million range, and that increases each time it's shipped and sold.

Both Green and Morse said the ferry staff are doing what they can, but the issue is that the capacity can't meet demand, with impacts on everyone from people travelling to access bank services or even people holding events.

"Obviously those boats need to be maintained and we appreciate that they are maintained and the service is so reliable," Morse said. "A lot of kudos to the Coastal crew for really pushing through and trying to get it done and getting it back here."

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal