Lobster Fishing in Cape Breton

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(Written by Dr. Paul)

Many of us enjoy a good lobster dinner, and travel to coastal spots like Cape Breton and Maine  for the authentic experience. I live on Cape Breton Island where there is an abundance of fresh lobster. First day of the season, around Mid May of last year, I asked my local distributor and neighbor, Merrill MacInnis, the difference between “Canners and Market Lobster”. His answer helped me understand the history of lobster fishing on Cape Breton Island and which lobster to order.

Merrill  has deep family roots in the lobster business, fishing for over 80 years off the eastern (Atlantic coast) of Cape Breton, in the Breton Cove area. His land abuts my land, so I can see his lobster territory as he cruises along the coast starting at 4:30 am each morning, usually from May through mid July.

My farmhouse at Breton Cove is adjacent to his acreage in front of which his family fishes, as they have done for years, with each lobster territory marked on land by colorful signs visible from the ocean below the Cape Breton cliffs. He is a good story-teller and over the warmth of afternoon tea, he told me something about the history of lobster fishing and of his family–mostly mink farmers and fisherman. (His father was both a mink farmer and fisherman, a big man, nicknamed “Johnny The Mink”, but that is another story altogether).

Here are a few highlights of the Cape Breton lobster history from one Cape Breton fisherman:

1 The native Mi’kmaq were the first to fish for lobster. They made big fires on the beaches and used the lobster for ceremonial purposes.

2. The lobster market began around 1880 or 1890.

3. Around 1900 a canning factory was set up by a fellow from Yarmouth and 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.”

4. During this period, 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

5. The changes in fishing practices started in 1910. 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.

So 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 all over the world 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”.

So whats better: canners or market lobster? It is all the same lobster meat, its just a question of size. Your choice depends on how hungry you are!

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