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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.