Guest post by Ashley Green
Setting Day is upon us. For generations, Island fishermen have taken to the waters after months of preparation to set their first traps for lobster season. On Setting Day, which usually takes place on May 1st in most parts of the Island, captains and their crews assemble on the wharf before anxiously boarding their comically weighed-down boats. As they head out to sea, friends, and family assemble on the shores along the route to see them off. The boats parading by in the rising sun is an iconic, beautiful scene and a quintessential part of Island life.
Preparation for the season officially begins around the last week of March for young captain Keir Blackett of French River. Blackett, along with his brother, Lucas, and father, Neil, set to work repairing their traps – fixing holes, replacing biodegradable twine, and making sure they’re ready for the season’s start. Then the traps are piled outside the workshop, tagged, roped, and buoys attached. Blackett’s boat requires basic maintenance, such as new belts, fresh fluids for the engine, and a thorough cleaning. A checklist of to-dos such as inspecting hauling equipment, and testing the electronics helps ensure preparations for the big day are completed on time.
Once the boat hits the water, the traps are loaded, and the fishermen wait to see when they’ll be cleared to start setting their traps. Weather can wreak havoc on the beginning of the season. If there is too much ice in the bay, it’s unfit for the fishermen to begin their season and Setting Day is pushed back until they can safely travel the waters.
At French River Fisheries, lobster buyer Brian Paynter sees to it that the fishermen have supplies in the fall for the following season. He supplies ropes, netting, and trap materials. Once the season hits, he also delivers their bait (fresh or frozen mackerel, herring, and gaspereaux) each day. His morning begins at 4:00 am and continues long after the boats return to the wharf following a productive day at sea. Paynter, with the help of his hired men, helps to unload, weighs the lobster haul, ices them and stores them until the trucks arrive for shipping to the processor. Trucks come periodically throughout the day – some to take lobster back to the mainland, some to pick up for delivery across the Island, and others to drop off supplies.
Blackett’s older brother, Lucas, became captain of his own fishing boat at age 18. The brothers were raised watching their father fish, and their grandfathers before him. “It’s definitely a lifestyle that you have to enjoy doing,” said the older Blackett. “You have good years but you also have bad years. It’s one of those things you take the good with the bad and the bad with the good.”
Fingers are crossed for a good year and good prices of course. Lobster prices fluctuate based on supply, demand, remaining inventory, and the current exchange rate.
Lobster season means different things to different people on the Island. To significant others, children, and parents, it means scarcely seeing your loved ones for a couple months. But for restaurant owners and tourism operators, it means the first real wave of seasonal visitors is about to wash over the Island.
Restaurants switch to seasonal pricing and secure produce suppliers. Lobster-centric dishes are incorporated into menus, and staffing is increased to serve influx. “Lobster sales grow as the tourism industry grows in PEI. As more and more tourists arrive, more lobsters are sold,” said chef Adam Loo, culinary operations manager at Murphy Hospitality Group. “More lobsters have to be on-hand so the chefs order more from their suppliers on a daily basis to keep up with demand,” he added.
For many Islanders, lobster traditions include elaborate Mother’s Day outings and family lobster boils. “Most restaurants do offer lobster as part of a Mother’s Day special and although the restaurants are busier, it can mean low-profit margins as lobster is so expensive and typically there is a promotion associated with Mother’s Day,” said Loo.
Families intent on a home feast search high and low for the best priced and freshest lobsters at grocery stores and lobster pounds. The most tenacious will drive around until they spot their big catch in an unassuming parking lot: a refrigerated pickup truck advertising fresh lobster, usually at a price that beats out any of the retailers.
“I personally love the simplicity of a boiled lobster dinner as it is a meal that was popular on holidays for our family growing up,” said Loo. Melted butter, potato salads, and fluffy dinner rolls are synonymous with lobster dinners, and something Islanders look forward to all year.
Once the spring season has wrapped up (usually around the end of June) and the final traps hauled from the waters on Landing Day, fishermen and their crew will come together for a drink and a collective sigh as they finally put their feet up for what feels like the first time in ages.
Ashley Green is a freelance graphic designer, owner of Local Legends Apparel, and Islander through-and-through. She hails from French River, Prince Edward Island and comes from a family of lobster fishers and purveyors.