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Tales of Lobster Fishing from Days Gone By

Margaret "Beck" Davidson

On July 4, 2000 I sat down with Margaret “Beck” Davidson of Pictou and talked about her years as a cannery worker for Maritime Packers Limited, a large lobster processing business with headquarters in Pictou and plants across Atlantic Canada.

Margie worked for Bill Broidy’s Maritime Packers from 1959-1967. It was a large processing plant with approximately 400-500 employees, located just outside the town of Pictou in Caribou.  Working along side the local people, were men and women from the Parrsboro area and New Brunswick. They stayed in bunkhouses and ate in the cookhouse.  Fishermen from the North Shore and South Shore supplied the plant with lobster, which the plant processed, and sold live.  They started processing crab in ’64 or ’65 as Margie recalled. 

The plant was open May to September and then November to December. The average employee worked 8 hours a day and six days a week.  Women wore uniforms consisting of long, gray, short-sleeved dresses with plastic, white aprons.  They tied their hair up in hairnets and fastened them with bobby pins.

The lobster was either brought from the wharves in trucks or dropped off by the fishermen.  The lobster was then weighed and sorted.  Canners (those lobsters between 1 and 1 ½ pounds) were placed in crates and sent to the plant where they would be cleaned and canned.  The markets (those lobsters over 2 pounds) were brought to the tank house where they waited to be shipped live.

There was a pump in the tank house that circulated sea water through the tanks.  The men worked shift work to ensure that the tank house was guarded around the clock.  It was important that there was always somebody on duty in case the pump broke down.  Margie told me how on one afternoon, just after mid-day she was coming home from her lunch break and noticed something unusual.  As she was passing the tank house she noticed that the sound of running water and the hum of the pump was missing and ducked in to see what was going on.  The men were off on their lunch break and no one was around.  To Margie’s surprise the pump had stop running and the lobsters were crawling around the room- the water had drained from the tanks and thousands of dollars worth of lobsters were a stake!  She ran out of the tank house to the intercom.  She sent a message for all men to report to the tank house immediately.  Before she knew it there were men were running from all areas of the plant. They came from the bunkhouse half-dressed, the cookhouse and the plant.  Soon the lobsters were crated and everything was under control.  Luckily Margie had walked by at the right time and noticed something was wrong or some serious damage might have ensued.

If the tanks were full the men crated the lobster and brought them out to floating docks just off the shore.  They were lowered in to holding tanks, wooden compartments that were submerged in the ocean water.   They waited there until they were ready to be moved to the tank house or shipped off on trucks.

When the canners arrived at the plant they were sent to the boiler room first.  They were placed in large, wire cages, hooked to a hoist, and lifted in to the boiler.  After twenty minutes on high heat they were removed and dumped into a large box full of cold water.  After approximately five minutes the men would begin to break them apart. The claws, bodies and tails were all separated and placed in wire baskets.  These were then passed along to the different sections in the plant where the meat would be extracted.

Different jobs performed in the main processing room included, breakers, crackers, tail splitters, tail pullers, thumb breakers, arm pickers, fin pickers, gib pickers/tomalley shakers, leg cutters and leg wringers.  Margie says she did a variety of these jobs, plus others.  Some days she would be in the packing room and other days she would be washing, or picking.  It depended on where she was most needed.

The leg wringers worked at 4 tables with 12 little automated wringers that were used to extract the meat from the legs.  The machines would all turn on at once and the ladies would feed the foot part of the leg into the press and the meat would come out into their hands.  The gib pickers/ tomalley shakers worked with the body of the lobster.  All they had to do was shake out the tomalley into a bowl and find the small piece of meat, the gib, located just under the shell.  After they removed the gib and the tomalley they would throw the bodies into a pile out behind the plant.  Farmers would come by every few weeks and take the shells away by the truckload.  They used them as fertilizer for their fields.

After the meat was extracted in the main room it was sent in to another room to be put through the washer.  The claw meat, knuckle (arm) meat, legs, tail etc were all washed separately.  After the meat went through the washer it went across the room to the packing table.

At the packing table the women placed the meat in the cans.  The knuckle meat was placed in the bottom, followed by two tails and then four claws.  After the cans were packed they were passed along to the brine table.  One scoop of the saltwater solution was added to each can and then they were then sealed up with a tin cover.  After being labeled and dated they were boxed and placed in a cold storage room to wait shipment.

Myrtle Langille

I had a chance to visit with Myrtle Langille on a beautiful, sunny July afternoon in her home in River John.  She still lives at home where she and her late husband, Wilson raised their twelve children.  

Wilson Langille was a lobster fisherman for 37 years.  He was born in Welsford in 1906 and grew up in Welsford and in River John. After he married he decided to try his luck lobster fishing and bought a motorized boat, gear and a license.  Myrtle remembers that in 1933 he was selling his catch to Maritime Packers, 3 cents a pound for a canner and 4 cents a pound for a market.  He never encouraged his sons to fish with him and had a hired hand instead, because as Myrtle recalls “lobster fishing was a dog’s life”.  Wilson made all his own traps by hand.  He would go to the woods and cut juniper for the rims of the traps, a wood that is easy to bend and shape.  Myrtle used to help knit the heads, the netting that covered the laths.  

At the beginning of his career Wilson fished 600 traps and pulled everyone of them up by hand. There were no electric haulers back then like there are today to make the job easier.  About half way through his career the government cut the number of traps allowed per fisher down to 300.   Myrtle’s father, who had fished lobster at the turn of the century, had had 1000 to 1200 traps!!  Back then nobody realized that an unregulated industry, such as it was, would effect future generations of fishermen. 

Myrtle recalled that the 1928 and 1929 seasons were reasonably good but that most others were poor.  Lobsters were scarce in the 30’s and 40’s from being over fished in earlier decades.  The numerous canneries around the River John area began to close down around this time as well.  Myrtle worked in one of these canneries, Ed Seamans on Cape John, for a couple of summers before she was married. It was an average size plant with about 25 women and a small number of men that was located on the Northumberland Strait side of Cape John.  She was paid only 50 cents a day (15 dollars a month).

Lorraine MacMillan

On a cool and cloudy August morning I spoke with Lorraine MacMillan and her son Billy about lobster fishing on Pictou Island.  Below are highlights of my visit with the MacMillans.

Pictou Island’s Lorraine MacMillan has many memories of lobster fishing in the old days.  Her father was a fisherman, her grandfather, her husband and now her son.  Arnold MacMillan, Lorraine’s late husband, fished for 60 years and only stopped fishing the year before his death in the winter of 2000.  Her son Billy fished with his father for years, and now owns and operates his boat and gear.

Although it was before her time Lorraine recalls that there were many canneries on the Island located on the north shore and on the east shore.  Her mother used to work in them, but she herself never did.  After the canneries closed down smacks (type of boat) would come from the mainland to bring bait and buy the lobster from the island fishermen.  They would then take the lobster over to the mainland to be processed.  This is still what is done today.

Although Lorraine never actually fished herself she did have a part in the preparation for lobster season.  She told me about the “frolics” that they would have in the winter.  Friends and neighbors would come over and there would be food and music and everyone would help knit the heads for the traps. She remembers one February when she and her mother knit 1000 heads. 

Lorraine told me of the fishermen from the mainland that have been coming over to Pictou Island for years to lobster fish.  They stay in little fish shanties located at the East End and stay there until the season ends.  Long ago, before there were cars on the Island, people who worked in the canneries but lived too far to walk to them would stay in these shanties during the season.  It seems the shanties that stand there today are the same ones that have stood there for the last hundred years.  They are small and rickety, weathered by the salt air and wind that whips up from the ocean nearby.  It is like you are stepping back in time when you walk through the fish shanties at the East End of Pictou Island.

Pictou Island saw its share of storms that whipped the coastline.  She told me of a time that her husband was out and broke his rudder (steering equipment) and that he was drifting past the island and up the Strait.  Luckily the lighthouse keeper at the West End saw him and radioed for someone to rescue him because there was a major storm on the way.  This storm wreaked havoc in New Brunswick, damaging boats, traps and fishing communities all along the coast.

When asked about what the best years were as far as the amount of lobster landed Lorraine wasn’t able to pick out any particular year because the seasons varied so much.  One year she said her husband landed 4,000 pounds and another year he landed 23, 000 pounds.  It depended on many different factors she said.

Anderson MacLean

Although Anderson MacLean now resides in River John, he grew up on Pictou Island and still fishes lobster there at the East End.  Born to John H. MacLean and Margaret McCallum of Pictou Island, Anderson began fishing with his father when he was 15.  He comes from a long line of fishermen who, through the generations, have passed down the trade from father to son.

Accompanied by his son Miles, he and three others from River John make the trip to Pictou Island each year to fish.  Anderson’s five-year old, 41ft Northumberland Strait fishing boat, “Many Miles to Go”, is moored at the East End of Pictou Island along with six others.  Anderson, Miles and the other men from the “mainland” rent out the fish shanties at the East End, residing there for the duration of the lobster season.  Before dawn they row out in small dories to their boats, anchored a short distance from shore, to begin their work day.

Among Anderson’s many stories was his sighting of the infamous “Phantom Ship” this past spring (spring, 2000). Although this was not the first time he saw it, it was much closer and more distinct this particular time.  It was about 2:00am when he left the fish shanty to use the bathroom.  It was a dark and clear night when he looked out on the water and saw the fire ball sailing due South.  The large flames outlined the shape of the ship.  He called Miles out to show him and they both watched it for a while. Anderson informed me that there have been many sightings of the Phantom Ship by Pictou Islanders.  He said how the lighthouse keepers at the East End use to say they could here people screaming from the decks of it.  Nobody seems to know exactly what the burning ship signifies, but Anderson thinks that it’s some sort of gas that comes off the water just before an “easterly” (a strong east wind, usually indicating stormy weather).

Anderson also told me of some of the changes that have occurred in the lobster fishing industry over the years, of how the fishermen used to regulate the number of traps they set themselves, and how when he first started fishing they were fishing 600-700 traps.  In the early ‘60s, which he mentioned were some of the best fishing years (as well as the early ‘90s) people were fishing 1100-1200 traps.  Soon after that the government stepped in and created restrictions on the number of traps that could be used.  Before, when he first started fishing, the government only regulated the time of year they could fish, and the minimum size they could take.  There were no trap regulations back then, and licenses could be bought for only 25cents.  Today, you can’t buy a license to fish lobster from the government. You must buy it from someone who already has one.  It is then expected by the fishing community that you will use that boat and gear, and fish from the wharf where that license was bought.

Boats never used to have any sophisticated radar, sonar or positioning systems like they have today.  In fact, Anderson said that they did not appear in boats until the ‘70s and ‘80s.  When he was young they used a sounding lead to measure the depth of the water and the type of ocean bottom.  The sounding lead was simply a can with a whole cut out of the bottom.  Liquid grease would be poured into the can and then left to harden.  The can would then be attached to a rope and lowered into the ocean.  If the can hit the bottom and the bottom was sandy the sand would stick to the grease, if it were rocky there would be nothing on the greasy surface. Besides finding out the type of bottom, it was also possible to measure the depth of the water using the sounding lead. When they hauled the rope up they could measure how many fathoms deep the water was by using their arm span; one arm span (about 6ft) equals one fathom.

The boats he first fished on were only about 30 ft and were open; they never had cabins.  They also had small motors and were steered by hand.  They had to haul the traps by hand, maneuver the boat by hand, check the depth and bottom by hand and make the traps by hand.  Anderson still makes his own traps.  He buys the wire, but constructs the “new” rectangular-like traps himself.  When he was young they made the wooden ones using black spruce trees.

Many things have changed for Anderson over the years but some things have remained the same.  Every May and June for the last 57 years he has fished for lobsters in the Northumberland Strait. 

Henry MacDonald

Henry MacDonald has lived beside MacDonald’s Cove all his life.  In fact his family has been living on the same piece of land for generations.  His great, great grandfather settled on the 200 acres surrounding the cove, and thus the cove carries his name.  MacDonald’s Cove is located between River John and Toney River on the Northumberland Strait.

When Henry was “a young fellow”, around 1925-1930, there was a lobster factory there owned by Burnaham & Morril, an outfit from the States. It was a small factory, like most were at this time, and it had a cookhouse and a bunkhouse.  The factory closed down around 1930.  Nobody fished there until 1948 when a breakwater was built and a wharf was constructed.  A road was built for easier access.  Approximately 8-12 boats have fished from MacDonald’s Cove over the years. 

When it was first built fishermen from the South Shore would come up and stay in fish shanties and fish there for the season.  There were only a couple of local fishermen.  However, over the years more and more local fishermen began to fish there.  When the wharf was closed down in the late 1980s the fishermen re-located to Skinner’s Cove and Toney River.

Over the years the wharf began to deteriorate. Every year they had to dredge the bottom and do numerous repairs. It got to be so expensive to keep it up that the government decided to close it.  When it went up for sale a local organization bought it.  This organization (Henry MacDonald is a member) is interested in preserving the site and making sure that the community will always have access to it.  If it had been sold privately there would not be a right way to the beach and the local people would not have been able to use it.


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