Lobster Fisher for a Day

It’s still dark when Captain Lori Clark picks me up in her white half-ton truck — just after 4:30 am. The first time I met Lori, it was behind a gorgeous blush and eyeliner job and a glass of white wine. Today, she’s in her rubbers, and she tells me I’d better be in mine, too.

We are heading to Malpeque Harbour, or around here, better known as “The Cove,” and towards Lori’s lobster boat, the Southern Lady. Although people have been fishing out of Malpeque for more than fifty years, Captain Lori’s only been out here about six, but three more before that when she worked on her husband’s boat, Captain Ewan Clark’s Pura Vida. She is among about 1,300 other fishers who hold lobster licenses on PEI this year. The fisheries are an integral part of Island culture and economy, especially to many in the Island’s smallest, most rural communities.

Lori’s brought me some coveralls but thankfully it’s not too cold of a morning and my layers of fleece and tuque will do. I greet her two hired hands, Jason Cooke and Brittan Turner. Jason says he’s been fishing as long as he remembers, and when he counts back from his age of 38, he says about twenty years. Young Brittan on the other hand, smiles shyly at my questions, nineteen years old and his first season out on the boat.

The crew cuts bait and assembles big plastic bins in a line, making provisions for the hustle of lobsters to come. The sky brightens slightly in the east, as Lori makes the two miles trek out to where her territory begins, the boats following each other one after another out of the harbour. They shout hockey scores back and forth and swap stories from the night before, as Lori shifts the control handle down. When the conversation lulls I ask a few establishing questions. How many traps, how many lines, how often do you empty each one?

“Four traps on a line, seventy five lines. 300 traps, and every one gets emptied every day,” says Lori. The season in Malpeque extends from May 1st (late this year) to June 30th, but there is a second season that starts in August and goes through October. I’ve gathered that this is only from the South Shore harbours, but as an urbanite I can’t be sure.

I’ve been told you never ask a fisherman how many pounds they’ve caught that day. Apparently it’s equally as inappropriate as questioning one’s annual income or a lady’s weight. So I mutter that one under my breath, and Lori says a thousand pounds is a great day.

Before I know it, Jason’s got the gaff in the water and is stabbing for a buoy, Lori’s being bright orange with green on the bottom. She explains that six years ago, she not only bought the fishing license, she bought the boat, the traps, the buoys, and the grounds that boat had always fished. These bright young buoys were a new addition. She’s also made new traps, but favors the square over the round or the “double-enders” as she calls them, round traps with bait in the middle and lobsters on both ends.

The first traps are slung onto the side of the boat and I am scurrying out of the way. Suddenly lobsters are pulled out of traps, measured and thrown, a dozen or so before I know what’s going on.  “They’re a little cranky today —we must be getting wind.” Lori says the smaller ones are feistier and naturally have more energy. Maybe we have more in common with lobsters than we think.

There are markets and canners and throwbacks, and they’re measured eye to back length. If the lobster’s too small, you throw it back. If the lobster has roe (eggs), you throw it back. If the lobster is a female in her prime, called a window lobster, you throw her back. It’s all in the interest of safeguarding the fishery in the future.

“You can’t fish them all this year because they’ll be nothing left for next year. Conservation is a must,” Clark says. The sun comes up a little more as we drive to her next line.

Out of the thirty or so captains at the cove, Lori is the only female. I ask her what it’s like to be a female captain, and what her first day and year was like. Did she have to pave her own way?  “Let’s start with the name,” I ask. “Do you call yourself a fisherperson?”

 “Anything will do.”

She shrugs it off, laughs a little and admits that there are fishermen around who think women don’t belong in the fishery, and think that it’s just a man’s profession. You wouldn’t know she’s any different by the way she throws those traps around, some more than seventy pounds each.  In her past career Clark was a dental assistant, but she admits that since she’s left the dental practice for the fishery, she’s never looked back. She gets back to lobsters, where we keep in the vein of gender.

“The tails fan out more in the females,” she winks, “I always say big hips.”

As the morning pushes on, there is definitely some strategy along the way. Clark pulls up certain traps, moves them a few yards away, and drops them back down again. Jason and I discuss where to find lobsters, how to know where they are, or more — where’re they’ll be. The traps are marked on the plotter, a computer main frame with dozens of small triangles marked on the nautical map. A sounder measures the depth under the boat, and Clark says that whether or not lobsters are on rock or sand makes a difference. Clark’s biggest indication of what kind of day it will be? Environment Canada and her Windfinder app. Clark says that the technology has come a long way in the industry. Rain or shine, the Southern Lady goes out, and, as Cooke says, “the good with the bad, the good with the bad.”

By now we’ve come a long way from shore, Captain Lori’s come a long way from being a dental assistant, and Cooke has come a very long way from his first season out on a boat twenty years ago. I go back to my job banding lobster claws, which Cooke says I’ll get better at in the future. I take in the salt air and the sweeping views of PEI’s cliffs and sands, wondering for a moment if next year, Captain Lori could have some female competition.

 Where can you go fishing this summer in PEI? Check out Lori’s husband, Ewan Clark, and his company, SeaRun Tuna Charters. The duo are both commercial tuna fishers as well, but Ewan loves to take people out of the boat in the summer. You can get in touch with Captain Ewan at ewen@searuntunacharters.com or check out his amazing videos at his Facebook page, SeaRun Tuna Charters.