SOUTHWESTERN N.S. – Seafood trucking operators in southern Nova Scotia are seething as their costs skyrocket during the two months the Digby-Saint John ferry is out of service for maintenance.
The MV Fundy Rose ferry is an important Maritime transportation link between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
But now, it’s gone – at least until late March.
That’s costing seafood trucking companies like B. Reynolds Trucking in Port La Tour a bundle in extra costs. The company’s truckers have to go around the Bay of Fundy to get seafood products to market.
“You’re driving seven hours that you wouldn’t have to drive because the ferry is out,” said Brian Reynolds, owner of the Shelburne County trucking company. “It’s ... burning diesel, paying extra drivers and eating up the roads.”
Trucking companies that haul lobster and other seafood to markets in Boston are furious that Bay Ferries and Transport Canada chose to shut down the Digby-Saint John link during what they are calling the busiest time of the year for their industry.
“I’ve been in the trucking industry for 30 years. I’ve seen a lot of ships come and go and this is the longest I’ve ever seen a ferry shut down for our type of work, for the seafood industry,” said Reynolds.
The MV Fundy Rose, which is owned by Transport Canada and leased to Bay Ferries, is docked at the Port of Halifax, where it arrived Jan. 24 and is expected to stay until shortly before it resumes service. Recently the company had been stating the ferry would resume service on March 21. Now it's website says service will resume on April 1.
"Please note the Saint John to Digby ferry service will be suspended for a planned work period from Jan. 24 to March 31, 2018," reads the site. "Currently, we anticipate resuming service on April 1, 2018 however it may be earlier so please continue to monitor our website for further information."
The federal government is investing $3.5 million into the MV Fundy Rose, including marine evacuation system and engine control systems, to boost its safety and efficiency. Another roughly $6.7 million of government money is being invested at the terminals.
“This work could not be completed during the last drydock and had to be completed this winter to ensure the vessel’s availability for peak-season service,” said Transport Canada official Julie Leroux. “Transport Canada removed the vessel from service when there would be the least impact to passenger and commercial traffic.”
Jim Wilson, vice-president and general manager of Bay Ferries, also says the company tries to schedule maintenance work to the MV Fundy Rose during times likely to be the least disruptive to its customers.
Paul Hatfield, vice-president and manager of the seafood trucking company South Shore Lobster (1992) Ltd., certainly doesn’t see it that way.
“They’ve got no respect for us in the seafood industry or they wouldn’t take that ferry out when they did,” Hatfield said. “It’s crazy and asinine for them to say it’s not in the peak time because these trucks have been going steady.”
Although the winter months are not the peak of Atlantic Canada’s tourism season, this is the time of year when the lobster industry is bustling with shipments headed south of the border.
“Next to New Year’s, this is our busiest time of the year,” Hatfield said.
Lobsters caught off the coast of Nova Scotia are a big favourite for romantic dinners on Valentine’s Day and banquets to celebrate the Chinese New Year, both of which fell during the same week this year. The catch by Nova Scotian fishers is also a big chunk of the global supply of lobsters for dinners.
And when lobster is caught and orders start coming in from American companies, seafood trucking companies have to operate on tight schedules.
“Time is of the essence because lobster is a live animal … and planes (in Boston) don’t wait for my animals,” Hatfield said. “When I miss a flight, that adds up to 12 hours to my transport time.”
Another Nova Scotian trucking company exec, who asked that his name not be used for fear of a backlash against his company, agreed. According to him, the longer route around the Bay of Fundy is forcing trucking companies to put an extra driver in each truck so that they can take turns sleeping as per regulations for the industry. That adds costs and the extra winter driving brings its own worries for truckers.
“They have to drive up to Truro, across the Cobequid Pass, and through snowstorms and it costs time and money,” Hatfield said.
Southwestern Nova Scotia seafood trucking companies are calling for maintenance work on the Digby-Saint John ferry to be done during a single month from mid-October to late November, before the largest of the lobster fishing seasons in this region of the province (LFAs 33 and 24) starts. In saying that, however, the LFA 35 lobster season in Digby gets underway mid-October.
“There’s got to be a better solution,” Hatfield said. “If they’re worried about a few tourists getting on the ferry, then they’re missing the boat.”
REPLACEMENT VESSEL OPTION?
In the local seafood trucking industry, many want Bay Ferries and Transport Canada to provide a replacement vessel for the MV Fundy Rose when it has to be taken out of service for maintenance.
That would be expensive and such a replacement ferry might not be able to use the existing docks, Jim Wilson says.
“The expense of a spare ferry would be significant, as would a (short-term) replacement, in the unlikely event a replacement was available,” said the Bay Ferries exec. “Beyond just the ferry, dock facilities may need to be customized to suit a specific ferry for embarkation and disembarkation of passengers and vehicles.”
Transport Minister Marc Garneau was not available for comment about the Digby-Saint John ferry, but Transport Canada officials said work needed to be done on the MV Fundy Rose’s engines.
“The government of Canada recognizes that users of the service will be affected during this period,” Leroux said. “Unfortunately, the work on the vessel could not be delayed.”
Yarmouth and Area Chamber of Commerce president Neil Rogers declined a media request to comment on the economic impact of the temporary closure of the ferry. A chamber official instead forwarded that request for information to chamber members. None responded.
At Bay Ferries, Wilson said the ferry operator is also using these almost two months for its own maintenance work on the MV Fundy Rose and the dock facilities the ship uses in both provinces.
“A number of the components of the work are items which were not able to be completed when the ferry was brought into service in 2015,” he said. “Concurrently, various work is being undertaken to the dock structures in Saint John and Digby to take advantage of the out-of-service period.”
The 18-year-old MV Fundy Rose is expected to last for another 22 years.