Prince Edward Island is just a seven-hour drive from the coast of Maine, but for Maine lobstermen it’s another world. At least that was the experience of a group of young lobstermen who visited the province to fish and talk with P.E.I. lobstermen and processors in May. The trip was part of the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance (MLCA) second Lobster Leadership Institute, a four-month hands-on educational program designed to give young lobstermen and women the skills needed to guide the fishery in the future. The MLCA is the nonprofit sister organization of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, whose mission is to educate the public about Maine’s lobstering heritage, support scientific research to further the industry’s conservation ethic and stewardship of ocean resources, and provide assistance to distressed fishing families.
The ten Maine lobstermen stayed with lobstermen on the north shore of P.E.I. and hauled traps with them. In the Maritime Provinces, lobstermen can fish only during set seasons, generally eight weeks in duration, and are limited in the number of traps they can set. The season on the north shore of P.E.I. runs from May 1 to June 30 and trap limits range from 273 to 300. If the weather turns poor or a boat engine breaks down, a P.E.I. lobsterman loses time on the water, time that cannot be made up during that season. So island lobstermen fish hard.
“I don’t think much of that limited season,” said Brian Tripp of Sedgwick. “I couldn’t believe they haul through their 300 traps every day. That’s a lot of effort.” Tripp, who went with lobstermen out of the towns of Tignish and North Lake, was struck by how different nearly everything he experienced was compared to Maine. “The only thing I recognized when I got on the boat was the bait and the lobsters! They use wooden traps that are really heavy. There’s a jibboom and hoist to raise them and they haul off the stern,” he said.
Regulations concerning legal size and other conservation measures are also different in P.E.I. Lobstermen there can land much smaller lobsters than in Maine, with the smallest canner lobsters 72 millimeters in carapace length. Unlike in Maine, P.E.I. lobstermen do not notch female lobsters with a V in the tails to ensure they can produce the next generation of juvenile lobsters.
On the other hand, lobstermen on P.E.I. have something that Maine lobstermen do not: the ability to move among different fisheries during the course of a year. “When the season ends, they go into herring, mackerel, charter trips for tuna. We are pigeonholed in one fishery. We can’t diversify,” Tripp noted.
Mike Sargent of Steuben went to P.E.I. to meet new people and see how lobster fishing is done on the island. “It was so different and yet so much the same. They are like a twin brother to us in Maine,” he said. The first thing he noticed was the pressure under which the P.E.I. lobstermen operated. This spring the water along the island’s north shore had stayed colder than usual. Thus the lobsters were not as active as in years past. Each day the water stayed cold meant fewer lobsters in the lobstermen’s traps during their brief two-month season. “They are definitely under the gun. They really crack the whip when they go,” Sargent laughed.
He took particular notice of the system by which sternmen are paid. Unlike in Maine, where a sternman gets a percentage of the catch, either “off the top” (before expenses are deducted) or “off the bottom” (after expenses), on P.E.I. the sternmen are paid a set salary. “The sternman makes between $1,000 to $1,200 each week and the captain makes way more,” Sargent said.
Brian Billings of Stonington noticed one difference between Maine and P.E.I. instantly. “The ports are just kind of a man-made place. It’s not a real harbor. The boats are tied up along a breakwater and when you go out you are in open water immediately,” he said. He went lobstering with fishermen from Tignish and Fortune. He and the other visiting lobstermen also toured a processing plant in Tignish that is owned by a cooperative of local lobstermen. “That was pretty cool to see, that it is all fishermen-owned,” he said.
The young Maine leaders were given a tour of large live holding facilities, sorting areas, and the processing plant. General manager and former lobsterman Francis Morrisey lead them on the tour and talked about the importance of marketing in selling the product. He has closely followed the development of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “Maine is well ahead of us with your marketing effort. You’ve done such an incredible job selling Maine lobster that it has even raised the price for our lobstermen.”
Like Tripp, Billings was struck by how different a season-based lobster fishery is. “They have a couple of months to fish and they keep practically everything. For female lobsters, they have a certain size in the middle that they can’t keep. But they can land large and small females.” He too found the ability of P.E.I. lobstermen to move into other fisheries appealing. “They can diversify, they have more opportunities,” Billings said.
Those opportunities come with a cost, Sargent noticed. “There are opportunities but you have to buy into them,” he said. A lobster license, for example, can be bought and sold and represents a sizeable investment for any young person wanting to enter the fishery, upwards of $1,000,000 in some areas. Such high prices mean that young lobstermen, such as the men he fished with, must wait many years to become their own captains. “The guy I was with, he was sterning for his father and would be doing that until his father decided to retire,” Sargent said.
MLCA president Patrice McCarron, who led the tour across P.E.I., noted, “We were blown away by the hospitality of all of the lobstermen and others who hosted us during our visit.” She added, “Our lobstermen were fully immersed in the P.E.I. fishery. The trip is such an eye-opening experience for young lobstermen. When you are able to see a similar fishery successfully executed under a different management structure, it allows you to think about your own fishery in a new light.”