Editor’s note: The following letter was written to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Bernadette Jordan.

Dear Minister,

My name is Dr. Jaime Wertman. I hold a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from Dalhousie University.

While I typically study pediatric cancer, if you search my publication record, you will note that my research has extended into virus research. My husband is a lobster fisherman (LFA 33, fishing out of Eastern Passage). He has fished for six years in this area but was also raised in a lobster fishing family in Beach Point, PEI.

I accompany him fishing as often as possible, which has given me the opportunity to observe the entire process of lobster fishing, from getting the boat ready and safe to operate, to selling the lobster at the end of the trip. I believe that my educational background, in addition to my intimate knowledge of the local lobster fishery, make me uniquely suited (and responsible) to provide my input on the rash decisions being made by your organization.

I was truly shocked by your statement on Friday, April 3 that all fisheries would remain open, despite the global COVID-19 pandemic. One reason includes the fact that lobster fishers/associated workers are already a “high-risk” population.

The Atlantic provinces, making up 96.9 per cent of all Canadian lobster catches, have the oldest populations in Canada (Statistics Canada). According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older age is a significant predictive factor in the development of serious complications as a result of COVID-19. Furthermore, as fishers, these individuals are more likely to live in seaside rural areas, with poor access to centralized healthcare resources. As an example, PEI has done an excellent job with stemming community transmission, with less than 30 confirmed cases. This number is sure to rise with the opening of their fishery and corresponding influx of temporary foreign workers slated to begin work on the island soon. It is also unclear if fishers from other provinces will be exempt from the otherwise mandatory 14-day self-isolation period. If an outbreak were to occur, PEI’s hospitals would be crippled, with only 19 available intensive care unit (ICU) beds.

Another example of a region of concern is Chéticamp, a small region with a community health centre containing only 10 beds. I believe that this is a situation that could apply to almost any fishing town in Atlantic Canada, with disastrous consequences.

The price of lobster is extremely low and there are currently very few viable markets. Furthermore, lobster is not an “essential” food item. Nova Scotia lobster dealers have lost an estimated $75 million since the collapse of the Chinese market with the appearance of COVID-19. There are no markets large enough to fill this void. The price of lobster has dropped from $10 per pound to $6/lb, making the profit margin too slim to continue harvesting. Further, opening more areas within the next month will add thousands of boats to the water, making wharfs and fish plants busy (making it impossible to enforce social distancing), and driving the price down even further.

Cruise ships, luxury restaurants and event venues are all closed. We are constantly being inundated with messages from our government to “only grocery shop once/week” and “only get the essentials.” Lobster is typically considered to be a luxury food item, saved for special occasions. It also needs to be purchased live and cooked quickly to ensure it is safe to eat.

Plainly put, lobster is not good pandemic food.

It is impossible to fish for lobster or process lobster while observing social distancing protocols, allowing the virus to spread freely.

The Public Health Agency of Canada have released guidelines surrounding the importance of social distancing to avoid coronavirus transmission. Not only is it physically impossible to maintain two meters distance from your fellow fisher on most vessels, in many situations (ex. working the hauler while others move traps), it would be dangerous to be this far apart.

Fishers work in close, dangerous quarters and regularly place their lives in each other’s hands. Rope moves quickly on boats – even a split-second hesitation over whether or not one should maintain social distance/sanitize an item before touching could be the difference between a near accident and a man overboard.

Fishing is already the most dangerous sector to work in in Canada – COVID-19 exposure is an unacceptable additional risk for these individuals.

Scientifically speaking, a lobster fishing boat in Nova Scotia is a perfect place for COVID-19 to flourish – it is constantly cold and wet. Although the specific length of time that coronaviruses can persist on a hard surface is not yet clear, the fact that this virus was originally identified in a wet fish market in Hubei province in China is not encouraging.

The lack of DFO support, lack of monitors/At-Sea Observers, and limited operations of relevant safety associations result in unsafe working conditions.

DFO employees are working remotely, as it is too dangerous to work at the office. The monitors/At-Sea Observers that ensure compliance and collect scientific data for the purposes of assessing sustainability are no longer allowed to work on vessels due to the “public health risk.” The Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia is working remotely, with decreased operations. This organization administers safety training, preparedness assessments, and “Man Overboard Drills,” in collaboration with St. John’s Ambulance. All of this training has ceased, meaning that even if a fisher in Nova Scotia wanted to be trained for first aid or attend a refresher on what to do if their crew mate falls overboard, they are unable to do so.

The discrepancy between the respect for the health and safety of government employees and fishers/associated workers is clear. There is little to no applicable or informative information on the DFO Web site for fishers, plant workers, or lobster buyers on how to remain safe during this pandemic. As the governing agency responsible for ensuring the safety of fishers/associated workers, you need to do better.

You have presented a fishers and associated workers with a lose-lose choice over whether or not they will go fishing.

Current subsidies available to fishers fall very far short of allowing them a realistic option of whether or not to go fishing. The licence and boat payments of captains vastly outweigh the benefits and loans currently available, leaving fishers with the decision of whether they should risk their lives (and those of all they work and live with) to feed their families and pay their bills. This is a choice that fishers are not equipped to make. They rely on you, DFO, their governing body, to tell them if it is safe to work or not. If you tell them that it is safe to fish, they have no reason to doubt you.

The rapid release of information concerning help that may be available to fishers/associated workers is integral, as fishers spend thousands of dollars a day getting ready to go fishing, going to required establishments (fuel, grocery, hardware stores), unnecessarily breaching social distancing recommendations.

We only need to look at other countries to see what can be done to offset this dangerous choice. Scotland’s has the Sea fisheries Hardship Fund, the European Union has the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) that will include “support for the temporary cessation of fishing activities due to coronavirus.”

I am afraid for the health and safety of my family, my friends, and the public safety of everyone in our Atlantic provinces. On a personal level, I live with Crohn’s disease, an incurable autoimmune disease that is only helped by the myriad of immunosuppressants that I take to function. I have been advised by my doctors to take social distancing very seriously, as COVID-19 is likely to hit me harder than most people – maybe even resulting in an inability to take the immunosuppressant medication that I need to live.

My amazing husband is sensitive to this issue and will not come home without quarantining for 14 days to ensure that I do not get sick. Due to our inability to find somewhere safe for him to stay, as long as he is fishing, I will not see him, and he will be living on his boat. I worry about him constantly and my heart aches thinking about the thousands of people that you have put in a similar position.

In summary, I think that the decision to leave these non-essential fisheries open despite the obvious risks that it presents is a perilous one that could result in the loss of an entire generation of fisherpeople. I ask you, Bernadette Jordan, how is that “protecting your supply chain?” Would you, or anyone else in your office, take the place of these fishers?

I look forward to receiving your response.

Jaime Wertman

Eastern Passage