When he cast off from the Pointe-Basse wharf on the island of Havre-aux-Maisons on May 5, the captain of the Water Tyrant, François Cormier, completed a ritual that had been performed many times: inventory the material , inspecting the boat, baiting the cages with plaice and mackerel … At the beginning of his 38th season, he has mastered the preparation of the lobster fishery in les Iles-de-la-Madeleine [Magdalen Islands]. This is not necessarily the case for everyone; even though lobster is easily accessible in our markets, fishing remains marginal and few people know the work involved behind this resource. What story does lobsters have to tell us?
Text and photo selection: Rachel Sarrasin. Photos: Eric Demers.
Every year, renewal
The starting signal for the launch of the fishing season is officially given at 5 am by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on the day. Usually it is the first Saturday of May. Each time, nervousness is palpable among fishermen. There is a mixture of enthusiasm for the resumption of fishing, which is only nine weeks a year, and apprehension about working conditions at sea that we never really control. This year, a thick fog was at the rendezvous at the dawn of departure, shifted by one day due to dredging work to complete in the various ports. Without navigational instruments and the occasional sound of foghorns, it would have been impossible to spot dozens of boats nearby leaving the dock at the same time in search of fertile bottoms to drop cages.
“Boëtte” is a mixture prepared by fishermen to attract lobsters. “Boëtter the cages” is therefore to bait them in preparation for fishing.
The local radio sent a commentator on each of the wharves of the archipelago from which lobsters leave. It is in Grande-Entrée that the majority of them are based, which gives the harbor its title of “Quebec lobster capital”. By 4 am, the wharf of Grande-Entrée was already unusually animated by the visit of parents, friends and curious gathered under the fireworks that marked the opening of the 144th fishing season. In the days before, Grande-Entrée had also hosted the annual ceremonial that accompanies the preparation of crews and boats.
A profession rooted in its community
To witness the lobster fishery in the Islands is also to measure the community’s commitment to this activity, from an economic, cultural and emotional point of view. The fishing industry, mainly lobster and snow crab, generates direct and indirect economic benefits of nearly $80 million a year for the archipelago[source in French]. At the same time, the insularity reveals the necessary support that the community must bring to the fishing profession, still very widely practiced by men who spend long hours at sea. A symbol of these links created by fishing: “Succeed together” was the theme chosen this year by the organizing committee of the program of activities preceding the launch of the season.
Among the activities of this “wake of the cage launching” is the traditional mass of the sea workers. This time it was animated by a priest and a reverend representative of the Catholic and Anglican communities that coexist in the Islands. The Grande-Entrée choir accompanied the sermon with Madelinot folk songs and replicas of objects associated with fishing were presented on the altar alongside the liturgical symbols.
At the heart of this ceremony, the “call to the lookout” during which each crew is called by the name of their boat and reminded the necessary benevolence of each other in the exercise of fishing. And for good reason! The sea trades are still high risk. With the many ropes at the feet of the fishermen on deck and according to the weather, the danger of falling overboard in still extremely cold water is present. After Mass, the community gathered on the Grande-Entrée wharf for the long-awaited blessing of the boats. A wreath of flowers was thrown in the water in memory of the missing persons at sea. It was followed by a friendly reunion with the community snow crab supper, whose fishing season had already begun recently.
A prosperous fishery
Every detail is regulated in the practice of lobster fishing and the first lifting of the cages is allowed 48 hours after their launch at 5am in the morning. Standing in the middle of the night in anticipation of the departure time, François and his crew were already at work in the dark on the Tyran d’eau [Water Tyrant]. This will be their daily schedule for the coming weeks, except Sundays, which is a mandatory holiday for all crews. It was cold and the sea was like a patch of oil for this first fishing, but it will not always be so calm during the season. On a day of bad weather, the captains will have to assess whether the conditions are right for the boat trip or whether it would be wiser to deprive themselves of the catch that day. In these circumstances, the lure of gain and the ripple effect between the crews can sometimes be influencing factors on the decision.
The lobster fishery in the Islands has obtained an eco-certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Back at the Pointe-Basse wharf in the early afternoon, the crew of the Water Tyrant was able to take the measure of its harvest of the day. The trawls gave an average of 19 catches that day, for a total of nearly 500 kg of lobster sold to buyers directly on the pier. François was satisfied, the season was well underway, like the last years that have been good for lobster fishing in the Islands. If we assume that the efforts of all the other crews have worked so well, it is more than 160,000 kilograms of lobster that the sea has offered on this first day of fishing. At the end of the season, it is estimated that more than 3 million kilograms of crustacean meat should be taken out of the water and offered on the market.
The fishing profession is timeless, but at the same time, it is one of the trades that suffers the most from the pressures induced by the transformations of our societies. “The sea is changing,” said Francois, looking out to sea from the deck of his boat. The current abundance of lobster in the Magdalen Islands is certainly related to the resource management measures implemented voluntarily by the fishermen, but it is also probably the result of climate change. Since lobster is a species that grows in temperate water, neither too hot nor cold, warming a few degrees in certain areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence has the effect of expanding the habitat of the species and promoting its development. and reproductive capacity.
The situation is currently benefiting the Magdalen Islands fishing sector, but for how long? Here again, the lobster fishery shows our collective responsibility for the fisherman’s job and the preservation of his environment. While the impact of human activities is changing ecosystems worldwide, the sea continues, for the time being, to be resilient by the abundance of products, such as lobster, which it continues to generate. But if we can rejoice in this prosperity, we will need to react to the context that creates it and learn to take better care of the sea, to avoid the risk of becoming true … water tyrants.