The Video: A Day On a Lobster Boat
The Story: A Day On a Lobster Boat
It’s 3:30AM when our alarm clock goes off. We’re not sure if that counts as night, or morning. But either way, it’s time to get up. The lobster boat leaves at 5:00AM and we have to drive to Souris, the nearest town, to meet it.
If we are going to understand lobster fishing, we need to experience it. Luckily for us, the lobster fishers on the Island are generous folks, and Terry Carter, an old family friend, offered to take us out and show us the ropes. We watched the weather for a week, waiting for a break in the spring rain. A nice day was on the horizon, so we went for it, hoping dearly that we wouldn’t find ourselves out on the ocean in the middle of a storm.
We step out onto the dock looking entirely out of place, but well prepared. We’re dressed head to toe in rain gear, bags of camera equipment and sea-sickness pills in tow, and hands full of coffee and doughnuts for the crew. We’re ready for our adventure.
Terry is at the wheel and mere moments after we board the boat is heading out of the harbour. There’s a lot of work ahead, and no time to waste.
The Day Begins: Sunrise Over Deep Water
We’re starting in deeper water today, which means a short steam out to sea before the fishing begins. Nick and Charlie, the two other crew members, stand at the back of the boat, silent.
Within a few short minutes the black and red floating buoy that marks their first set of traps is spotted and the team jumps into action. Using a hook tethered to a long wooden pole, Charlie snags the buoy and pulls it on board. Nick threads the thick rope connecting the buoy to a trap onto a hydraulic pulley, known as a hauler, and sets it in motion.
The rope spins, spraying water, and in seconds a trap can be seen rising out of the deep. It breaks the surface, Nick grabs onto it, and with one smooth motion, hoists it onto the boat The sun is just breaking over the horizon. We’re lobster fishing.
As soon as the trap is balanced on the side of the boat the crew begins to empty it. While they work in close quarters, they never seem to get in one another’s way. They’re fast, and we’re on our toes trying to keep up with the action.
Sorting Lobsters: To Keep, or Not to Keep?
Lobsters come equipped with two claws: a pincher and a crusher. As the names suggest, they can do some serious damage. Sticking your hands into a full trap seems daunting, but the team doesn’t hesitate. Their heavy rain gear is dual-purpose, protecting them from both the elements and the creatures’ powerful grip.
Not all lobsters that are caught can be kept. When each lobster is pulled from the trap, its underbelly is first checked for “berries” – fertilized lobster eggs that look like their name suggests. These pregnant lobsters are tossed back to sea.
Next, Terry measures each lobster. If it’s too small, or too big, it’s returned to the water. It seems like for every one that Terry and his crew keep, another has to be thrown back. But steps like these are aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the lobster population.
Keepers are separated by size. Smaller canners are tossed into a bucketful of water. Larger markets are held off to the side in plastic tubes – they’ll need more work before they’re ready to sell.
The entire process of sorting through a trap takes only a matter of seconds. The team moves quickly, completely focused on their work. Save for the sound of waves hitting the side of the boat, and the whir of the hauler, it’s quiet.
Suddenly there’s a distinct change of energy on the boat. Charlie digs into a trap, and turns to us holding the biggest lobster we’ve ever seen. It’s a six-pounder – one of the largest they’ve caught. Everyone stops to admire the sheer size of the creature, and Terry laughs as he measures and confirms that it’s a keeper.
Once all of the traps in a set have been emptied, the crew gets to work preparing the markets. Using a simple, steel tool, Charlie and Nick carefully stretch hefty rubber bands around the lobsters’ claws to keep them from injuring each other when they’re placed into storage buckets.
The Technology Behind the Team
Terry is an example of how old school and new school techniques can blend in this industry. He records the numbers of canners and markets taken from the last set of traps using a pen and paper. Then he turns to his wooden ship’s wheel, and surveys his array of modern navigational equipment.
He’ll use these tools to determine where to drop his now-empty traps, and to steer the boat to the next set of full ones. But old habits die hard, and he still finds himself checking landmarks on the shoreline to guide his way.
When Terry finds a good location, he calls to Nick, who pushes the traps into the water. Aside from operating the hauler, which can be unforgiving to stray fingers, this is one of the most dangerous parts of the job.
The rope that connects a set of six traps to one another flies out of the boat at an alarming rate, and on a stormy day it snakes threateningly across the flooded floor. Keep a close watch or you may find yourself tangled up and taken overboard.
We head off in search of the next buoy. It’s spotted, connected to the hauler, the switch is flipped, and the next set of traps is coming on board. Each crew is allowed between 240 to 300 traps, and every day roughly 100 of those will be pulled up, emptied, re-baited, and returned to the ocean.
Today is a good fishing day. The weather is perfect and the lobster plentiful. But it’s not always this way. Over the years Terry and Jean, his wife and fishing partner, have had to navigate through snow and ice, they’ve lost nearly all of their traps to a particularly violent storm, and they’ve seen times when there were almost no lobster to be caught.
“There’s no nicer place to be on a good day. And there’s no worse hell on a bad day,” Jean tells us. “You really have to love what you’re doing to be able to hang in there and ride through the bad times.”
The Crew of the Misty Blues
Terry is a life-long fisherman – it’s in his blood. He got his start over 40 years ago, fishing alongside his father, and owned his first boat by the age of 16. He has kept the trade in his family, teaching his wife and three children how to fish. His daughter, Belina, gets homesick for the Island at the start of lobster season.
A craftsman and an innovator, he has the latest gear, and builds all of his traps himself. They’re his own design. He’s one of the few fisherman on the Island to use sinking rope. It’s heavier, but helps to prevent whales from getting tangled up.
He also built his boat, the Misty Blues, in the workshop next to his house. The fiberglass hull that was brought over from Nova Scotia barely fit inside. As he and Jean worked day and night to have it ready for the start of the season, locals would drop by to watch them, doubtful they would be able to get it back out.
When the big day came, the boat was ready. And, to the amazement of the crowd of spectators, it also fit out the door. Just barely. That was 27 years ago now, and the boat is still going strong.
Charlie is Terry’s first cousin. He’s been fishing on the Misty Blues for eight years now, though he’s fished with Terry, off and on, for more than thirty. When there’s a break in the action, he turns to us, eager to share his knowledge.
He tells us stories of times when he would spend weeks offshore on huge ships, pulling in thousands of pounds of fish. He shows us tiny baby lobsters, and teaches us how to tell the females from the males. He looks the part of the quintessential fisherman, and has the experience to back it up.
Nick is Terry’s youngest son. He got his first taste of life on the ocean when he was a baby, falling asleep to the hum of the engine as his parents worked. His speech is peppered with nautical terms that go right over our heads, and his sweatshirt reads “Support Your Local Fisherman”. He knows his way around the deck, and when Terry needs a hand, Nick confidently takes the wheel.
The activity on the boat seems perpetual. Lunch lasts a fleeting 5 minutes – before we’ve had time to unpack our food the crew has finished eating their lobster sandwiches and the engine is starting up again. But every now and then there’s stillness. A moment to yourself. A time to simply enjoy the fact that your office is the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
Back to Shore
As the sun climbs higher into the sky, the buckets on the deck of the boat fill with lobster. On a good day the crew will catch between 600 and 700 pounds. Within their two-month season, a high producing lobster boat can catch upwards of 40,000 pounds.
With the last set of traps emptied and returned to the ocean, we head for home. A noisy flock of sea birds escorts us into the harbour, eager to snatch up any leftover bait that gets tossed overboard. It’s 10:30AM and the day is done.
When we talk to Terry a few days later, he shares his thoughts on the future. Thanks to careful management, lobsters off the coast of Prince Edward Island are thriving and the fishing is good. But he worries too that the high cost of buying and operating a boat, combined with the falling price of lobster, may make it difficult for a new generation of fishers to enter the business.
But today, as we pack up our gear, and climb back onto dry land, the crew is in good spirits. The weather was beautiful and the traps were full.
As our adrenaline begins to wear off, exhaustion sets in. Our sights are set on a long nap. We ask the guys if they’ll be doing the same, and they laugh. They’ve got errands to run.
“After all that work you’re going home to do more?” we ask.
Terry flashes a big smile: “Oh, that wasn’t work.”