Cape Breton Lobster, Lobster, Lobster

Many of us enjoy a good lobster dinner and go to Maine and Nova Scotia for the authentic experience. Here at Cabot Shores, we get our lobsters from Merrill MacInnis. For more on lobster and lobster fishing, click to see our video on Lobster Fishing Off Cape Breton Island

We asked Merrill: What’s the difference between “Canners” and “Market Lobster?” His answer can help us understand the history of lobster fishing on Cape Breton Island, in addition to, which lobster to order.

The MacInnis family has been fishing lobster for over 80 years off the eastern (Atlantic coast) of Cape Breton, in the Breton Cove area. We can see his fishing territory as he cruises along the coast starting at 4:30 am each morning from May through mid July.

The farmhouse at Breton Cove, is adjacent to his acreage in front of which his family fishes, as they have done for years, with each zone marked on land by colorful signs visible from the ocean below the Cape Breton cliffs. Merrill is an excellent story-teller and over the warmth of afternoon tea, he told us something about the history of lobster fishing and of his family–mostly mink farmers and fishermen.

Here are some of the main points in Merrill’s account:

  1. The native Mi’kmaq were the first to fish for lobster. They made large fires on the beaches and used the lobster for ceremonial purposes.
  2. The MacInnis family started fishing on Cape Breton Island just about as soon as they emigrated here from Scotland, but not for lobster. That came later. The lobster market began around 1880 or 1890.
  3. Around 1900 a canning factory was set up by a fellow from Yarmouth. Money didn’t change hands; every member of the family, children included, worked at the cannery. Their labor was traded for “luxury” items such as flower and sugar and “other items not readily available and known to the community.” During this period, according to Merrill, there were no rules and the fisherman could take any size lobster caught up in a trap. They also could catch females, even ones with eggs.
  4. The changes in fishing practices started in 1910. Merrill said: “the commission had come here to the island to speak to the fishermen…put some rules in place. That all females that had eggs would have to stay in the water and there is a minimum size as well …so there’s a chance of reproduction.”

That is how the term “canners” came about. The “Canners” were lobsters just big enough for the canning factory. Bigger ones are called “market” lobster, fetching more money because of the size and were sold locally or to dealers.

Back in the day, almost all the lobster was exported. In fact it was mostly canned and sent by train to Boston or Toronto. For the Cape Bretoners, lobster was considered “trash” food. A boy or girl walking to school wanted to have a sandwich of peanut butter and jelly or, even better, baloney. They would sooner throw a lobster sandwich in the bush for embarrassment, according to Merrill, than be seen with it in public. It was not exactly the luxury item it is today.

But now tourists engage in Nova Scotia travel from the world over, to enjoy and photograph the scenery along the famed Cabot Trail and to eat lobster and other Nova Scotia seafood. There is even a lobster festival on Cape Breton called “Lobsterpalooza”.

Which one should you order? Canners or market lobster?

It is all the same lobster meat, the same food. Your choice depends on how hungry you are!

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