Chapter 3: Lobster Fishing in PEI; Opening Day

“They that go down to the sea in ships….”
Psalms, 107:23-30, KJV

The dashboard clock reads 5:00 AM. On this small wharf in Sturgeon P.E.I., it is still dark; that darkest hour just before daybreak; with a fine drizzle and light fog shrouding the wharf. Fishermen are bustling about, with their small fleet securely tied at the wharf. Their diesel motors are idling, at ready, for the first day of lobster fishing. This morning is ‘settin day’. It also happens to be ‘opening day’ when they typically would be ‘haulin’ in their first catch of the season. Despite the delay caused by high wind and generally nasty weather, they are good to go.

sturgeon wharf 5am

The fishing fleet is loaded and ready.                                                                         Photo: ELR

Ever wonder how the succulent lobster arrives on your dinner plate? Well, if you are on a wharf in Eastern P.E.I. on May 1st , ‘opening day’, you can witness firsthand the back breaking work and careful planning it takes to fish, and catch, the crustaceans that our nation covets.
The mood on the Sturgeon wharf this morning is light, and a feeling of excitement and expectation lingers in the air, as captains and crew ‘made ready’ their fleet. While some of the crew is having their first smoke of the day, a kettle boils rapidly in a fishing boat’s cabin, brewing the first morning cup of tea.

Kimberly Dawn

The Kimberly Dawn                                                                                                            Photo: ELR

This is a family affair for most of these men. Generation after generation has fished the same lobster licenses on the same fishing grounds. One captain has his ‘first mate’ on board, proudly introducing her as his wife. It’s quite evident she knows the drill. She carries her load well, baiting the traps each day, and later, when the traps are hauled, she baits them again for their eventual return to the sea. On the same wharf, a young fisherman has his boat loaded and ready. His first mate, his son of 17 years, secures the lines and steps confidently around the bow of the Kimberly Dawn. Smiling and jovial, he makes mention that he has been fishing since he was in the ‘womb’. It is evident this young fisherman has inherited his love for the sea.

Lobster traps stacked neatly on the wharf.                      Photo: Sara Roach-Lewis

At first sight, there appears to be as many traps still on the wharf, as there is loaded on the fishing boats. There is scarcely room for the crew to move about. Each boat looks almost identical, bearing half their quota of 300 traps neatly stacked on board. Today, these traps, each weighing almost 100 pounds, will be set on their fishing grounds in the Northumberland Strait on the south shore of Prince Edward Island.
The ‘corks’ or helpers are mingling on the wharf sharing stories of prior years, and lamenting on what this year will bring. The early morning air is cool, and you can see their breaths in the shadows of the dock lights. Their voices are muted, and I sense I’m witnessing a very intimate moment. Oddly, I feel like an intruder, stumbling upon some sacred ritual. Eying me suspiciously, with my yellow rubber boots and rain gear, they see the flash of my camera, and their mood changes. They snicker at the mere idea of a photo shoot in the early morning hours.
They are a proud lot, and I am honored, to be sharing this moment and space on their wharf on a chilly morning with temperatures hovering around four degrees Celsius. As the first light of dawn casts new shadows over this small fleet, few words are spoken. By some instinctive signal, the crews board their vessels, and in a quiet and unhurried pace, they perform their assigned tasks. Methodically, the crews untie their sterns and bow lines, and not once, did I hear a captain bark orders.
Within minutes, the entire fleet is untied, and underway, to their fishing grounds. While most Islanders were just waking up, lobster fishermen in this small community of Sturgeon were already well on their way out to sea.

This fisherman is no stranger to lobster fishing. Here he readies the traps for settin.        Photo:  A.Roach

Underway from the Sturgeon Wharf. It is 6:00 A.M.                                       Photo: A. Roach

A light fog slowly lifts off the water’s surface.                                                            Photo: ELR

So caught up in this sight, I was unaware for a moment I was standing alone, on the vacant wharf. The low rumble of their motors fade as they negotiate the channel, and hearing their distant laughter ricocheting over the water’s surface, I was awed by their camaraderie. As I watched them through the mist and low lying fog, I sensed that I was not alone. I felt the ghostly presence of many ‘fishermen past’, who fished these same waters for decades, and who like me, were feeling the same sense of pride, and excitement that thrilled these fishermen today.

In Western P.E.I., the lobster season is later in the summer.  In Malpeque Bay, at the end of the day the fishermen dock their boats with precision at the wharf.  A local P.E.I. photographer captured the breathtaking serenity of a sun setting on the wharf in Malpeque.

Calm night at the wharf Paul Arsenault

Calm night at the wharf.                                                      Photo: Paul Arsenault Photography


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