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A wave of good fortune: Bob Swim chalks up 50 years as a lobster fisherman

Still spry at nearly 70 years of age and going into his 50th year in the lobster industry, Bob Swim is both envied and criticized.

The successful fisherman who owns two licences proudly recalls how some members of his Port Mouton Bay community have commented they would like to be like him when they’re his age.

Other’s have called him “‘selfish’” for sticking with it for so long.

“That hurts,” he admits.

It’s easy to see that it might. There’s a sensitive side to the affable fisherman, whose state-of-the art fishing boat is named Heather’s Journey, and sports on the side of its bow an oval vintage picture of his sister, Heather, who drowned in 1957 when she was just two and a half years old.

There’s also a pragmatic side to him.

Of Heather’s death in a brook near their family home, he says, “That’s a sad time, but there it is. It doesn’t just happen to one family.”

It’s that pragmatism that no doubt has helped buoy his success as a fisherman.

“You get back out of it what you put into it,” he told LighthouseNOW.

Swim first started fishing when he was 18, along with his father, Waldo Swim, a navy man who went into the business in Clark’s Harbour following World War II.

Swim spent a couple of years working as a deck hand on his father’s 37-foot wooden boat. Typically during lobster season they would fish off of Mud Island, about 24 kilometres away from Cape Sable Island.

He recalls it as a time when all crew members, even the deck hands, had to have licences, which cost as little as 25 cents. The lobster fetched about 65 cents to 75 cents a pound.

And a good season might bring in 6,000 pounds of lobster.

His father used to reserve some of his catch for Christmas time, when prices were higher. He remembers one lunch when he came home and announced he was being offered $1 a pound for his lobster.

“Which was unheard of. A dollar a pound. And now we grumble and growl if we don’t get $6.00,” Swim said chuckling.

In 1967, Swim met the young Port Mouton resident whom he would marry and spend the next 50 years of his life with.

Setting out on his own out of Port Mouton, independent of his father, he bought a skiff with an outboard motor, a Briggs and Stratton hoist to haul traps off the ocean bottom, and had traps and a fishing licence thrown into the deal.

Bob Swim’s fishing boat is named after and carries a picture of his two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Heather, who died in 1957. Gayle Wilson photo

“This was all second-hand, but in fairly good shape. I got into the business for $2,000,” he says.

Though he had been on the water with his father for at least a couple years, for the young Swim there was a learning curve to fishing from a different harbour and on his own.

Deck hands rarely get to steer the boat.

“So when I started on my own, I had to learn the operation of the boat, plus the safety factor.”

He also had to adjust to the different business climate at Port Mouton. Unlike at Clark’s Harbour, fisherman based in Port Mouton were “very territorial,” he says.

“I set my traps here; you set your traps there. You didn’t mingle very much.”

He says it’s still like that to a degree. ” Not as bad, but a bit.”

Swim remembers his earlier years as a time when the lobster catch fell back to averages of about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per six-month season. He doesn’t know exactly why, but he suspects weather was a factor.

“It was just too cold. The lobster moved off to deep water, and we didn’t have the boats to chase them.”

Over the years, Swim made an effort to upgrade his boat whenever possible.

He purchased his first fibreglass vessel in 1983 for about $18,000, a 36-footer which had radar and sonar and CB radio.

By the early ’90s he was on his third boat. (He’s had a total of eight.)

“I’d sell the old one and when I got a new one I’d always get a little bit bigger. That allowed me to go into deeper water and try for lobster.”

Most of those years Swim fished alone. “What I brought home was ours.”

Other fishermen might have one or two assistants on board.

As the groundfish industry declined in the ’80s and ’90s, gradually the demand and conditions for lobsters improved. On a good year, in the early ’90s , Swim was stocking an average $100,000 worth of lobster.

He bought the $300,000, 40-foot boat he currently has a couple of years ago, financing it in part by himself and in part through the Nova Scotia Fisherman’s Loan Board.

“They’ll lend fishermen loans and they give us 20 years to pay it back. The bank interest is more,” he explains.

He says there’s currently an abundance of vegetation for the lobsters to feed on, including kelp, Irish moss and eelgrass, and signs of an abundance of young lobsters and mothers with eggs.

“So the future does look good for the fishery,” he told LighthouseNOW.

With tax credits stemming from his latest boat purchase, and the two licences he secured when the prices were infinitely lower than the $12,000 to $15,000 they fetch now, allowing him to bring 375 traps, Swim these days is riding high on a wave of good fortune.