Lobster Fishing

This slow beginning in commercial fishing was followed by explosive growth when the Island got lobster canning fever. Before this happened, Islanders had considered lobster poor man’s food; it was something you had to eat when your farm couldn’t provide for you.30. The residents of lot 64 shared this outlook, but European tastes were very different; it was considered a delicacy in Britain. Islanders had never been able to take advantage of the market for lobster because unlike other seafood, it couldn’t be dried, salted or pickled. The introduction of canning technology changed that, and Island businessmen took full advantage of the new market that was now open to them.

The first canning factories on PEI opened in the late 1850’s, and they processed cod, mackerel, and hake. When they discovered that lobster could be canned, the industry grew like wildfire for the next 30 years, hitting its climax in 1900. By that time, there were 246 lobster factories on the shores of PEI,30. and no place on the Island had more than Murray Harbour. This is evident in an 1878 newspaper article that reported there were 5 lobster canneries within the 10km stretch of shoreline between Beach Point and White Sands!31. Including the factories on the north side of the harbour, the area had twice as many lobster factories than the district that was the second most popular for canning. Incredible amounts of lobster were being caught, and in Malcolm McFayden’s Beach Point factory, 16,000 lobsters were canned per day.32. This couldn’t last though; stocks were showing noticeable strain by the 1880’s.

The pressure on the stocks demanded regulation, and it finally came to the industry in 1889. Fishing seasons were established to protect spawning lobsters and it was made illegal to keep soft shelled lobsters or lobsters with eggs. Also, traps couldn’t be set in less than 2 fathoms of water, and it was illegal to sell “broken” lobster meat to canneries.26. This last regulation was put in place to prevent fishermen from cooking and canning the lobsters at home, then selling them to canneries to sell under their label. A couple of years later, the Federal Minister of Marine and Fisheries proposed fishermen should have to get a license and pay a fee per trap, because they were alarmed at the depletion of American stocks; this didn’t happen though due to industry opposition. In 1894 factories required a license to operate, but despite all of the regulations, the industry grew and grew. By 1898, an Inspector noted that “…when canning first commenced on the Island, an average of 2½ lobsters would make a pound can of fish; now it takes seven to ten to make a pound.” It was a problematic time in the lobster industry.26.   

In lot 64, the shift toward commercial fishing is reflected in the Directories of the 1860’s and 1870’s. Hutchinson’s directory was published in 1864, and out of the 44 men listed from Murray Harbour, only two have ‘fisherman’ marked as their profession. Only one out of the 38 men in Murray River was listed as a fisherman, and none of the 46 men of White Sands listed themselves as fishermen.33. Less than a decade later, Lovell’s 1871 Directory came out, and fishermen are suddenly much more common. Out of 20 people in the Murray Harbour area, two are listed as having fishing establishments (Davies and Prowse), but there are no fishermen listed; Under Murray River, however, there are more than 10 fishermen listed out of the 50 people in the directory.34. Unfortunately the 1880-81 McAlpine Directory is less useful, since it lists very few people in the area, but the difference between the 1864 and 1871 Directories lines up well with our knowledge of the fishing industry at the time.  

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