Story by Shannon Leahy
TRACADIE HARBOUR, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — On Wednesday, Victor Clow well embark on a tradition that he has kept up for nearly six decades. He will board his boat, called “Lester the Lobster,” and join his son and childhood best friend on a hunt for crustaceans that are a source of their livelihood.
Setting Day marks the start of the eight-week lobster fishing season, which runs from April 30 to June 30 each year on Prince Edward Island. The annual event starts at 4:45 am and is traditionally a hard but good day for men such as Clow. Fishing communities across the island come out to cheer on their local fishing fleets as they head out to what residents call “the sea.” Once the boats are loaded with their traps and are on the water, the day begins. At 6 am, and not a second before, the first lobster boat leaves the wharf, an honour granted to the most veteran fisher and his crew. Dozens of boats follow and the wharf roars with the sounds of engines, cheers and silent prayers. Some harbours invite local clergy to bless the boats and crews during this annual spring rite.
The island is situated between the Northumberland Strait to the southwest and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the north. More than 1,200 lobster fishers will set out for these waters to haul in 80 per cent of the world’s lobster. Yes, 80 per cent. That’s how important this food product is to the economy of PEI. Canada’s tiniest province has built a big market exporting smaller lobsters, called canners (250 to 375 grams), that are unique to the warmer waters surrounding the island. In 2012, the entire lobster industry accounted for $135 million in export revenue for the province.
Lobster Season Starts This Week on PEI
“No one wanted to fish lobster when I started,” says Clow, who is 71 and began setting lobster traps when he was 13. With the collapse of other species, fishers turned to the lobster. Last year, the large supply of lobster caused a sharp decline in prices and escalated discontent among PEI lobster fishers who said government regulations hindered their opportunities for competing in the marketplace against places like Maine. Still, people on PEI see lobster fishing as a way of life they won’t soon give up — as well as a labour of love.
Clow is from Tracadie Harbour, a fishing community on PEI’s central-north shore, about 25 kilometres northeast of Charlottetown. When I visited, Clow and his childhood friend, named Felix, were getting back from their day on the water. It is Felix’s job to haul up 300 lobster traps each day, six days a week, for eight weeks, with one hand. Each trap weighs 100 pounds (45 kilograms) because of its sturdy cement bottom. Felix is 74 years old. He’s a quiet, gentle sage who grins when I tell him his huge calloused hands resemble lobster claws.
The “Lester the Lobster” team is not a motley crew but a family tree: father, son and father’s best friend. The boat was once helmed by Clow and is now captained by his good-natured son, Lester, who claims his job is to “drive the boat around.” (If you’re wondering, Victor did not name his son after his fishing boat. “Lester the Lobster” is a Stompin’ Tom Connors’ song.)
When I asked Victor Clow about the day’s catch, he says, “Not too good, not too bad.” His son says the exact same thing. There’s a steadiness to the pace of life here.
But this is hard work and people pitch in with neighbourly assistance. Along with a boat’s regular three-person crew, there are extra hands on deck, usually family and friends, to help set the traps. The considerations that determine where those traps are laid in place include: fishing region, unspoken harbour courtesy, gut instinct and wishful thinking. On Setting Day, a warm feeling of nostalgia comes over the island as the traps go down, though the water they settle into is still frigid.
Clow jokes that the spring lobsters are so cold that “some of them come out of the water wearing mink coats!”
They still taste great, though. The Clow family invites me for supper, and I go. Lobster is on the menu, love for this experience is in my heart.
MORE ABOUT LOBSTER FISHING TOURS ON PEI
A number of companies offer lobster fishing tours on the island, including:
PEI Culinary Adventures: Based in Tracadie Harbour, PEI Culinary Adventures is run by PEI Chef of the Year and Atlantic Canada Chef of the Year Ross Munro. The “Seafood Sensations” tour lets you harvest alongside lobster fishermen, oyster farmers, clam and mussel growers. The day finishes with a chef-prepared, island-inspired seafood meal. Tours run from April 30 to June 30. Half-day and full-day tours range from $375 to $675 per person. Book online or telephone 1-902-394-5910. By the way, Munro is also one of the judges for the 2014 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide, to be released in May.
Top Notch Charters and Lobster Tours: Based in Charlottetown, Top Notch is a member of the Canadian Tourism Commission’s Signature Experience Collection. Tours run from July 1 to August 31. Rates are $45 or $80, with the more expensive tours including dinner. Book online or telephone 1-902-626-6689.
Tranquility Cove Adventures: Based in Georgetown and also a Canadian Signature Experience, Tranquility Cove offers a variety of outings, though not lobster tours. You’ll want to try their Big Clam Dig experience. Tours cost $98 for adults and $78 for children. Book online or telephone 1-902-969-7184.