Shipbuilding was the largest industry in
northern Nova Scotia during the 1800s, employing thousands of people from
Pugwash to Pictou. When this industry began to fail at the turn of the century
the people of the shore communities looked towards the lobster fishery to make
The lobster fishery has changed considerably
over the years. It has been the
livelihood of the north shore people for the last century. It has suffered
through bad times and flourished in good times. For over thirty years hundreds
of lobster canneries dotted the coastline of the Northumberland Strait where
thousands of fishermen would bring their catches to be processed.
These small plants would employ fishermen and cannery workers, both local
men and women and those from away. It
was a wide-spread and profitable business, but unfortunately short-lived.
With increased technology and new and
efficient ways of storing, transporting and marketing lobster, the old canneries
were replaced with fewer, larger ones and the lobster fishery was changed
Even before the Europeans arrived on the
shores to settle in the “ New World”, the Mic Mac (Mi’kmaq) and Maleseet
Indians of Atlantic Canada had been fishing the seas for lobster for hundreds of
years. Long ago, lobsters were so plentiful that they often were found on the
beach at low tide, and would wash up on shore in large storms.
The tasty crustacean was known as “Wolum Keeh” to the Mic Macs, and
was a source of food, fertilizer, and ornamental material.
Hilton McCully wrote in his 1995 book, Pictou Island, “in the
harbour of Cibou (Sydney, Cape Breton) in 1597, one haul of a little dragnet
brought up 140 lobsters.” It is quite amazing to think that in just 400 years
the lobster population has declined so greatly that if you were to throw a net
out now you would be lucky to get any at all!
Long ago, before traps were used, lobsters
were fished from the shallow waters by spearing or gaffing.
Fishermen hunted for lobsters by torch light on calm evenings, spearing
them as they crawled around in search of food.
During the day they would spread a slick of oil over the surface of the
water darkening the water below, and then throw out cod heads for bait.
The lobsters would swarm around the bait and the fishermen would spear
them. Although there was no real
commercial market for lobster at this time, some fishermen did sell their catch
to make money. Because the lobsters
were worth more if there were no spear marks in them, the fishermen began using
wire cages to trap the animals so they could get a better price.
These wire cages were adapted from the Europeans who used them to catch
crayfish and Spiny lobsters. There was such an abundance of lobster long ago
that it was not a valued commodity and was considered a poor man’s food.
It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th Century that the
lobster industry began to flourish.
After the invention of the stamp can in 1847 the process of packing cooked food in hermetically sealed tins for future use spread quickly. New Englanders first canned seafood in Eastport Maine in 1843. It was also New Englanders who were the first successful exploiters of Pictou County lobster. The Boston company, Shedd & Knox built a lobster factory at the East end of Pictou Island in the 1870s. Others soon followed suit.
It was during these early years that the
fishermen would row out in dories or in sailboats and set their traps.
Two men normally manned a boat and fished about 200 traps.
They would set out before dawn and come back to the wharf anytime between
10 and noon. Before the turn of the
century the fishermen owned their traps and boats and the rest of their
equipment as well, but in later years they would rent it from the canneries that
hired them. Fishermen sold their
catch by count and not by pound to the packers. For example, forty to fifty
cents would be paid to the fishermen for one hundred lobsters, regardless of
their size. It was possible for
two, hard working fishermen to land four to five tons of lobster a season, from
mid-April to mid-summer.
During these early days the industry was not
organized or regulated by the government. The government introduced restrictions
on the use of soft-shelled lobsters and berried females as well as size
restrictions in 1871. A year later
they restricted fishing in July and August. Even though there were regulations
in place, and the industry seemed to be somewhat organized, the processing part
of the industry was still somewhat inefficient.
Before commercial factories became prevalent
on the north shore, lobster was processed in fishermen’s homes. They would bring their catch back to their houses where their
wives would help them boil them in large pots on the stove.
The meat would be extracted and then packed in cans that would be fitted
with can covers and sealed with a band of solder. Holes
were made in the cans where brine would be forced through and then these would
be sealed up as well. The cans
contained one pound of lobster meat and were packed in cases of forty-eight.
It was a process that had a high spoilage rate, but was the only means
available to market lobster at this time. In
fact, it was assumed that lobster “was green in the sea, red in the pot and
black in the can”.
As the years progressed and the lobster
fishing industry changed, the crude and wasteful means of processing lobster in
the past were replaced with more sanitary and efficient ways.
The number of canneries present in Canada rose from 44 in 1872 to 900 by
1900 and continued to increase through the early part of the century.
In the early part of the 20th century there were 10-13 canneries in the River John area. Some of these canneries were Seaman’s, Burnaham& Morril, McGee’s, Broidy’s and MacLellan’s. Local women and those from away would work side by side in the processing room, picking the meat from the shells, washing it and putting it in cans. Money to be made in the lobster factories was considerably better then doing housework. The men at the factories were in charge of boiling the lobster, breaking it apart and in later years, when shipping live came into vogue, were in charge of the live tanks and floating docks. These first small commercial factories packed an average 3, 000 cases (144, 000lbs) during a season.
As the years slipped by, these small
canneries began to close down and the lobster processing industry began to
consolidate in Pictou, Caribou and Lismore. By the 1930’s the number of
canneries had dwindled down to only a handful.
One of the ones left, Maritime Packers Limited,
turned out to be one of the most successful exploiters of lobster in northern
Over the last 100 years the
lobster industry has endured changes in processing, equipment, regulations and
fishing methods. Because of these
changes, and other various factors, the market for lobster has changed over the
years as well. In the early 1900s lobster was considered a poor man’s food.
Stories told around River John tell of how the children who brought
lobster sandwiches to school were considered the “poor kids” in town.
Today many people consider lobster a delicacy. In fact, you have to pay a considerable amount of money to
have a good lobster feast these days.
The biggest change that
occurred in the lobster market was the development of the demand for live
lobster. When people started demanding fresh, live lobster, the lobster
processors responded. Soon after
shipping live became the norm, different varieties of fresh, frozen lobster meat
became available on the market. Quality controlled plants with more efficient packing and
shipping methods, as well as high-tech machinery and advanced holding systems,
allowed for better products to be developed and marketed. Some examples of the
products developed; fresh, frozen lobster tails, vacuum packed whole lobster,
fresh, frozen meat in cans, and lobster tomalley and roe. It was gradual changes such as these, which have lead to the
development of the industry we have today.
Not only did the lobster processing part of
the industry change throughout the years, but the equipment and gear that the
fishermen used changed as well. The sails used to power the fishing boats in the
late 1800s and early 1900s were not removed when gasoline engines first appeared
in boats around 1910, but remained on board for back-up.
The sails were still needed in case the motor broke down, which often
happened. Although the motors
allowed fishermen to go farther from shore they were very temperamental.
The early make and brake engines did not have a clutch and they could not
idle. They could go either formal
or backwards but had to be stopped completely and re-started to change
direction. Most of the boats around
the North Shore had Fraser Marine Engines that were made in New Glasgow at the
Doc Fraser Foundry.
By the late 1920s fishermen started using car motors in their boats.
These motors had starters and could idle.
With the advancements made in motorized boats fishermen were able to fish
farther, set more traps and therefore make more money.
However, even though they had better equipment and were being paid a
better price per pound, their costs to maintain their equipment was higher, and
the number of people fishing was greater. The
standard of living in general increased,
pulling the cost of living up with it. So,
all in all, the only advantages that arose for the fishermen were those involved
with the actual fishing process: they
didn’t have to use manpower to maneuver their boats.
However, they still had to haul their traps by hand and rely on
traditional methods of navigation. Electric
haulers did not appear in fishing boats until the mid 1900s and radar, Global
Positioning Systems, and all other types of electronic equipment did not appear
in fishing boats until the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Boats evolved over the years, changing in style, size, strength and speed.
With advancements in technology fishermen relied less and less on
landmarks to mark their positions, muscle power to haul their traps and
self-made gadgets to measure the depth of the water.
Not only did the boats they fished on and gear they worked with change,
but their lifestyle changed as well. By
the 1970’s technology had made
the job faster, the day shorter and the work easier.
Instead of coming home late in the afternoon fishermen could be home by
noon. Today, lobster fishing boats
are decked out with radar, colour monitor depth sounders, GPS (global
positioning systems), haulers, CBs and radios.
Long ago, before traps were
used, lobsters were fished from shallow waters by spearing or gaffing.
Fishermen hunted for lobsters by torch light on calm evenings, spearing
them as they crawled around in search of food.
Although there was not a commercial market for lobster at this time, some
fishermen did sell their catch, which was worth more if it bore no spear marks.
Switching to a wire cage to trap the lobsters fixed this problem and
brought the fishermen a better price.
Not long after the wire cages
were brought in, hoop nets became the norm.
The rims were made of cast off cart-wheels and netting was stretched over
them. These traps were good for shallow water because of the abundance of canner
lobsters. (Small lobsters between ˝ and 1lb). This was beneficial to the
fishermen because they were paid per count and not per pound, so the more
lobsters that could be caught in the trap the better it was for the fishermen.
Most lobster traps today
are made of metal or a combination of wood and metal and are manufactured in a
factory. The original wooden lath
trap is said to have originated in Cape Cod in 1810. New England fishermen in the United States used it for years
before American companies introduced it to the Canadian fishery through their
Atlantic coast canneries. There
have been many variations of the lath trap over the years, varying in the number
and shape of openings and compartments. There
were double headers, three headers, jail, parlor, wheeler and diamond traps.
The traditional wooden lath lobster trap that is still quite common today consists of two main sections, the kitchen and the parlor. A lobster first enters the trap through funnel shaped structures called doors (also called funnels). After successfully entering through one of these doors the lobster enters the kitchen where the bait is tied. When a lobster tries to escape from the kitchen it is led through another door into the parlor. Small vents in the parlor allow undersize lobsters to escape, but larger lobsters are stuck there to await their fate. The “doors” are shaped in such a way that it is easy for the lobsters to get in but difficult for them to get out.