The Video: Portrait of a Wharf
The Story: Portrait of a Wharf
If you find yourself on Prince Edward Island at the right time of year, you’ll see the waters just off the coast dotted with scores of fishing boats. It’s lobster season. They’ve been catching lobster here for over a century, and the process is steeped in tradition.
Crews have only a few months to make their catch. On the eastern and northern shores of the Island, they’ll be on the water six days a week from May to June. On the west end, the season runs from August to October.
Over 20 million pounds of lobster are brought in each year. This feat is accomplished by small boats with small crews – usually two to three people at most. Traps are pulled out of the water one by one, and then emptied by hand. Each and every lobster comes into direct contact with the fishers.
At the end of the fishing day, with their catch on board, each crew returns to its home wharf – one of 60 picturesque ports that line the coast. It was here, on the wharf, that we got our first look at the industry that catches some of the tastiest shellfish in the world.
Welcome to the Wharf
Finding a wharf on the Island is easy. Head towards the coast, and when you see roads with names like Sailor’s Hope, Lighthouse, or Wharf you know there’s one close by. You’ve arrived when you spot the neat rows of small wooden shacks set against the backdrop of the sea.
Walk around the wharf and you’ll find many details worthy of a photograph: a boldly-coloured life preserver, a collection of vibrant buoys, a stack of storage buckets in a rainbow of hues, and a sea-green rope snaking across the dock.
Boats, Traps and Shacks: Unique Tools of the Trade
Boat names run the gamut. Some are sentimental, named after loved ones. Some are witty, like Dad’s Knotty Buoys. Some feature elaborately painted scenes, while others are marked only with hand-written lettering. Around the wharf you’ll also find lobster traps, worn by time in the salty sea. These essential tools are full of character, too.
Traps are made by hand, often by the very fishers who will use them. Frames are either rounded – the traditional approach – or rectangular, and building materials range from precisely cut pieces of hardwood to bent tree branches.
Though approaches to construction vary, the end results are the same: a lobster trap is a reflection of hours of work, years of research, and decades of tradition.
The shacks that line the wharves serve a simple purpose – to hold a fisher’s gear. Some are plain, made from unpainted wooden boards or shingles. Others are brightly decorated, with their colourful paint gracefully weathered by the years. With their doors often wide open, and locks left unlocked, there is a feeling that the community here is tightly knit and trusting.
The Wharf at Annandale
Annandale Wharf is a harbour on the east end of Prince Edward Island, ten minutes down the road from our parents’ home. It’s small enough that on our first visit, we stood out. But here, standing out means you are greeted, with a friendly inquiry of “Where’re ya from?”.
We chatted with many of the folks who fish out of Annandale. Some were members of the same crew. Some were members of the same family. All were more than happy to tell us about their day and their work. And when they learned about our project, more than one generously offered to take us out fishing.
Wharfs: Where (Some of) the Work Happens
Lobster fishing is hard work. Crews set out early, often before 5:00AM, and pull up traps for hours. It’s also one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. When the season is so short, you can’t be picky about the weather, so boats sail in rain, shine, fog or storm.
When the crews come back to shore, the wharf is all activity and noise. The distributors who buy the day’s catch are waiting on the dock. They hoist the lobster out of the boats, water pouring from the buckets in which they’re stored. They shuttle the buckets down rampways and lift them into idling trucks, ready to take them to processing plants. From there, the lobster will travel to the United States, Asia, Europe and across Canada.
Head to a wharf in the evening and it’s quiet. You’ll find remnants of the day’s previous activity all around. A dropped glove, a broken trap, a collection of the bands used on lobster claws.
Boats are tied up, sitting calmly in the harbour. The crews have gone home to rest. They’ll be up early again the next day, to start the process anew.