By Ed Staskus
“It will bring tears to a grown man’s eyes,” said Kelly Doyle, a lobsterman who works out of the Prince Edward Island harbor of North Rustico. He was talking about lobster claws. The bite force of a large dog in pounds per square inch is about 500 PSI. A good-sized lobster’s crusher claw exerts about 1000 PSI.
“I had a claw on my hand one morning, he was squeezing my finger, and not letting go. He’s got you and you think, that’s it, he can’t go no more, but then he’ll squeeze some more. My brother Kenny had to take a screwdriver to it. Kenny is a big man, and he had a big screwdriver, but it took him a few minutes to pry it off of my finger.”
A 27-pound lobster was caught off the coast of Maine in 2012. The claws were so large they would “break a man’s arm,” said Elaine Jones of the Department of Marine Resources.
“We don’t catch those kinds of monsters,” said Kelly. “The biggest one I ever caught in my traps was maybe 7 pounds, max. But that’s a damn big lobster, a foot-and-a-half long.”
29 million pounds of lobster were harvested on Prince Edward Island in 2014, much of it during the spring season, which is May and June. It is a limited entry fishery. “1200 lobster fishers land their catches at approximately 42 ports all around the province,” said April Gallant of PEI’s Agriculture and Fisheries. Many of them are pulled up from the north shore, from Malpeque to St Peter’s Bay. The Rustico fisheries are roughly the axis of the lobster world along that shoreline.
Besides North Rustico, there are the towns of Rustico, Rusticoville, and South Rustico, all named after a fisherman by the name of Rene Racicot, a French Norman who came to PEI in 1724. Racicot became Rustico among the Acadian-French settlers.
The reason the north shore was settled was fishing. After the deportation of Acadians by the British in 1758, and the eventual return of those who had hidden or survived drowning and shipboard epidemics, fishing was what meant life or death for their families.
“I’ve been fishing for 30 years,” said Kelly Doyle, “although I took a few years off, which was a little sabbatical.” After leaving PEI for Montreal in his early 20s, he returned in 1983. “I built a cottage, but I couldn’t get a job anywhere. The next spring I got offered a fishing job in North Rustico.”
Although fishing in North Rustico dates back more than two hundred and fifty years, groundfish stocks contracted in the 20th century. Shellfish and crustaceans, especially lobsters, emerged as the species of choice. Lobster landings almost tripled between 1960 and 1990.
In the early 1990s a moratorium was enacted limiting the taking of many kinds of groundfish. “We were shut down completely,” said Kelly. “No more white fish. All we were allowed was lobster, although we could still catch our own bait, like mackerel and herring, at that time.”
Nowadays lobstermen buy their bait. “I come in, pull up to the wharf, and Doiron takes every lobster I’ve got,” said Kelly. “I buy my bait from them, too.”
North Rustico’s Doiron Fisheries got its start when Aiden Doiron bought his first fishing boat in 1957. One day, when a man asked him for a cooked lobster, he said, “I’ll be right back.” He grabbed a lobster, a pot, and cooked the lobster on the spot. The Doirons still sell fresh fish out of a shanty on the wharf.
“We cook lobster on the boat sometimes,” said Kelly Doyle.
Thirty years ago he often bagged his own bait for lobstering, late at night. “There was a freshwater run about 2 or 3 kilometers down Cavendish Beach, where the gaspereau would come up from the ocean, smell the fresh water, and spawn there. When they came back down we caught them in nets.”
Alewife is a herring called gaspereau in Atlantic Canada. Catching them meant waiting for them to swim back to the ocean with the tide at midnight. “We would net them by hand, standing in waist-high water. When we got them on shore they’d be flapping around and sand flying everywhere. We’d fill up 40 or 50 boxes and carry them by hand back to our pick-up trucks.“
Neither motor vehicles nor horses are allowed in the National Park, which is what Cavendish Beach is. “We’d ice them up for the morning, get home by 2, and then back up at 4 o’clock, 6 days a week in the season.”
There are 37 boats in the harbor at North Rustico. All of them are made of fiberglas, all are equipped with diesel engines, and all carry a trove of electronic gear. Hulls cost upwards of a quarter million dollars. The annual cost to operate Kelly Doyle’s boat, which he co-owns with Paul Doiron, a man he’s known since grade school, is nearly $50,000. “The word boat is actually an acronym,” he said. “It means break out another thousand.”
Seventy years ago lobster boats were all wood, ran on 6-cylinder gas engines, and most of them didn’t come with a cabin that anyone could stand up inside of. It wasn’t until the 1960s that windshields were added for protection against the elements.
“In those days in the winter motors were removed and taken home,” said Norman Peters of the Fisheries Museum. “Boats were hauled to a field and turned upside down to keep rain and snow out. I remember playing under the upside boats and finding bits of fishing line to use to fly kites.”
“Our boat is the Flying Spray,” said Kelly. “It’s hull number177, built in Kensington, so it’s called a Provincial. It’s a great lobster boat, very dependable, although a little on the rocky side. It’s good going into it, but it doesn’t like being turned. It throws you around a bit.
“Most of my career was in wood. The best thing about fiberglas is it doesn’t leak. Except, not like wood, they don’t float at all. If you put a hole in them they sink pretty well instantly.”
Lobstermen start their day early. “He gets up at 4:20 in the morning,” said Kelly Doyle’s girlfriend, Ryoko. “I make his breakfast and lunch and he’s gone before 5. I go back to bed and sleep a little more.”
Paul Doiron captains the Flying Spray and Kelly Doyle is the sternman. Both are in long johns through May and sometimes into June. “On top of those I wear insulated overalls and when I get to the boat I oil up,” said Kelly. “We put on oilskins, a full bib, and a jacket. It’s so you can stand in the rain for hours.”
After they’ve cleared the North Rustico harbor the first thing Paul Doiron does is turn on his GPS to locate their traps.
“The first guy I fished with only had a compass,” said Kelly Doyle. “But, it never really worked right for him. They fished by strings back then, by their compasses and landmarks. You would probably find your buoys, but on a dirty morning, no. They’re only so big floating in a big ocean out there.”
Fishermen on the island are restricted to 300 traps by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In the early 19th century lobsters were so abundant they washed up after storms. Islanders used wooden tongs to pick them up, although many were ashamed to be seen eating lobster because it was regarded as a poor man’s dinner. There used to be no rules about harvesting lobster. But, by the 1890s there were problems with declining stock.
“Many fishermen had from 1200 to 1500 traps,” said Norman Peters. In the latter half of the 20th century the fishing season has been shortened, fishermen must be licensed, and taking spawning lobsters isn’t allowed. “It’s the responsibility of those who are fishing today to conserve our fishery,” said Mr. Peters.
Once out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence the Flying Spray looks for its traps. “We’ve got 37 bunches of 8 traps and one trap of 4,” said Kelly Doyle. Traps are connected by a line, eight of them along a stringer, and attached to buoys with a unique color for easy identification. “There’s 8 traps between buoys and that’s called a set, or a full trawl. They’re all numbered in our GPS and we pick them up every morning.”
The Prince Edward Island gulf coastline is largely ledge and sand. When the frozen shallow waters thaw in April lobsters move in from the deeper ocean. They return to warm shoal water for egg-bearing females to hatch and release in springtime and early summer.
“Hard rock is what you want for lobsters, rock that looks like mountains,” said Kelly. “Sometimes they’ll cross sand. Most of the time sand is full of crabs and crabs hate lobsters. When lobsters cross sand they scare the crabs out and you can have a tremendous catch the next day. You’ve got to think like a lobster, about the depth of the water, how warm it is, and when you think they’re going to be there.”
When the fishing is good he, and often a hired hand, haul one lobster after another out of the traps they’ve pulled, slip rubber bands over the claws of the keepers, loading them into onboard tanks, and re-bait the traps. As the traps are lowered back into the ocean the most important rule for sternmen is to not step on rope, get snagged in the rope, and get dragged overboard.
“Lots of guys will get caught for a minute,” said Kelly, “but the last guy who drowned out of this harbor was Jackie Dussett in the 1960s. He got his leg caught and was just gone, overnight. The tide worked him loose the next day.”
Lobster fishing on Prince Edward Island is not usually unusually dangerous, but it is hard work, in more ways than one. Everything on a boat is hard. “Everything’s hard as steel,” said Kelly. “Or, it is steel. No matter, whatever you hit hurts.”
Boats bob and toss at sea since the ocean is never steady like dry land. “I’ve been hurt every year I’ve fished, banged up like an old man.” Working on a lobster boat means working on an exposed, slippery, and moving platform in weather that is bad as often as it is good. Tourists drown in small swimming pools. Fishermen are faced with miles of open water.
Next to logging, commercial fishing is statistically the second deadliest kind of work to be in, deadlier even than police work or firefighting. “Fishing at sea is probably the most dangerous occupation in the world,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“I come out of the cabin one morning last year, coming up the three steps, when something came off the sea and literally threw me out of the cab. The momentum of the boat picked my body up like it was weightless. I banged on the bulkhead and just like that you’re on the ground, hurting, black and bruised.”
Unlike many fishermen on Prince Edward Island, Kelly Doyle doesn’t come from a fishing family. The first Doyle came to the north shore from Ireland in 1847. He was granted land along was is now Doyle’s Cove. They raised thoroughbred horses and later bred black silver foxes for their pelts. When fox furs went out of fashion his grandfather and father mix farmed, growing turnips, barley, and wheat.
“I have three brothers and they all became fishermen,” said Kelly. “We weren’t fishermen, but I think it was in our blood. We were all at ease on the water. None of us got sick. But, I’m the only one who still fishes. It can be hard on you.”
In season the Flying Spray sails for lobster every day it can. Some days, like after a storm when the 7 kilometers of line they carry are tangled and need to be untangled, they are out for up to 15 hours. “Gear starts to move. Before you know it it’s all snarled, mine and everybody else’s. You’ve got to pull it up, bind your gear, and that’s rough.”
Lobster cages weigh about 20 pounds without the 44 pounds of concrete ballast in them. When they are wet they are more than 100 pounds. “Thank you to the man who invented hydraulics!” said Kelly. “Years ago it was all hauled by hand. The forearms of those guys in Rustico back then were like Popeye.”
Although not born to it, although his business interests have expanded to include Coastline Cottages and PEI Select Tours, and although it is exacting, physical work, Kelly Doyle plans to continue lobstering.
“I had been out of fishing for a few years, but bought back into it. My first year back I thought I was going to die. It was a tough spring, shitty weather, and I was going to bed at 7 o’clock, just beat up. It’s all about wind, which creates seas, which creates bouncing around like a cork.”
Seas can be dangerous and storms terrible. But, the lives of commercial fishermen are subsumed by their boats, the waters they sail, and the work they do. “Later part of March, you’ll hear a seagull on the coast, it just seems to draw you back,” said Francis Morrissey, a fifth-generation lobsterman in Tignish, on the northwest tip of the island.
“This is the best place in the world to be fishing,” said Mike McGeoghegan, past president of the PEI Fisherman’s Association.
Oceans are more ancient than anything, including mountains. Men have fished for more than 40,000 years, from about the same time modern humans moved into Europe. 1,100 kilometers of red sandstone shoreline rim Prince Edward Island, some of it sand beaches, some of it cliffs, all surrounded by the wide sea.
“I’m going to fish this year, at least I will as long as I’m on this side of the sod,” said Kelly Doyle. “To tell you the truth, if I die, I hope it’s out there.”
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.