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Lobster season has slow first month on PEI's North Shore
Jack MacAndrew

By Jack MacAndrew

Several weeks into the season, on a Saturday morning, northeasterly winds continue blowing across the lobster grounds of north shore Prince Edward Island. The fishermen call them “shit” winds, and as one declared: “Whether you're trryin’ to catch a lobster or a trout, them damn east winds is no good for fishin’.”

That was pretty much the story all along the shore; strong winds stirring up grey seas; cold water, and lobsters inactive because of the water temperature. There was talk of fishermen on normally lucrative grounds hauling a dozen traps or more to find a single lobster.

Then there were the days when fishermen couldn't get out at all. There were stretches of up to five days when some fishermen wouldn't take the risk of getting to their traps; or getting back to safe harbour if they did. Other days a series of heavy fogs kept them ashore for fear they wouldn't find their buoys if they did make it to the lobster grounds.

At mid point in the two month season, up and down the coastline, fishermen were reporting hauls that totalled seven to 10,000 pounds less than what the brought in last year. They could only hope that with the month of June, the water would warm up and make their quarry more active.

Likewise, that belated dredging at some harbour entrances would lessen the likelihood they would lose their boat, and perhaps their lives trying to make it in and out of harbour at low tide.

The north shore of PEI is essentially one long sand beach stretching from tip to tip along its crescent shape. The sand shifts and takes unexpected new conformation with each and every gale from the northern points on the compass. Sandbars come and go overnight, forming and re-forming tidal currents. Harbour entrances at fishing ports along the shore have been artificially constructed and must be continually dredged to allow safe passage during low tides, especially very low spring tides when the moon is full.

Eric Wagner has fished out of hardy’s Channel for 25 years. He told CBC radio, “It's the worst I've ever seen it. Getting in on low tide with the sea on your stern is very dangerous .... the tide running out there is probably five or six knots. It will turn your boat sideways, mouth open to the sea and you are pretty well at the mercy of the breakers.”

Proof of what he's talking about is evident in the carcass of one lobster boat now resting onshore where it is continually battered by the breakers. Others had close calls, and have taken on water before freeing themselves.

With all these miseries it is no wonder that catches are down as much as 50 per cent from last year, depending on the harbour and local conditions. The provincial Department of Fisheries, which collates landings, acknowledges that catches were down from last year during May, normally when fishermen land up to 75 per cent of their total catch over the two month season.

After several weeks of uncertainty, shore price settled in at $3.75 for canners and $4.25 for markets. That's more than was paid last year, but still not as much as fishermen would like. Processors had a number of days when there were no lobsters to process, making employment somewhat sporadic for production workers.

Savage Harbour, midway down the northern coast of the island province, is haven to 22 boats fishing lobster on grounds a half hour away. It is one of string of such harbours dotted along the Gulf of St. Lawrence shore, all of them artificially constructed amongst the shifting sands to allow passage in and out of harbour regardless of tidal flow.

At one end of the wharf at Savage Harbour is the buying station operated by Terrance MacDonald and his wife Marion. Terrance wheels about in his Bobcat, delivering catches from the eight boats selling to him, and ice and bait back to the boats.

Marian says within the shed, taking care of the paperwork and the documentation required by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans..

They've been working as a team for many years now, 17 of them fishing, and for the past 20 years, acting as buyers for one company or another. Last season he bought for Ocean Choice International, and was left stranded when that company decided not to process this season.

He quickly picked up another company to supply, Captan Dan's Seafood , located in Richibucto, NB . A lot more PEI caught lobster is being trucked across the Confederation Bridge to processors on the mainland this year because of the demise of Ocean Pride , Minigoo Fisheries and Ocean Choice. The latter company had been processing about a quarter of the total catch of PEI lobster fishermen.

In the first weeks of the season, Terrance MacDonald bought barely 60 per cent of what he did last year, when an avalanche of lobster in the opening weeks created a glut that processors couldn't adequately handle.

“It may be a good thing to even out the catch,” he says. “The lobsters are still out there, and the water is bound to warm up. We could still do okay this season.”

The spring season ends on June 30.

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