By Kate Robertson, Epicure & Culture Contributor
Lobster. Sweet, salty, succulent morsels of melt-in-your-mouth goodness. On my recent trip to Cape Breton Island, a charming little island on the very northern tip of the Canadian Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, I got to see how local fishermen have been employing ethical and sustainable practices to conserve this delicacy.
“Proud Caper” Nona MacDermid, who hails from a fourth-generation fishing family, was happy to share her knowledge of lobster harvesting with me. Like many people who live on Cape Breton, Nona’s family came from Scotland during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th century. During this time hundreds of farmers were evicted by aristocratic landowners to make space for sheep-raising.
The Challenges Of Lobster Harvesting
Lobster fishing takes dedication. Along with difficult-to-get licenses costing around $500,000, a work day starts at 3am and there’s danger of stormy seas.
“It is quite common to have fishermen who can’t swim at all,” says Nona. “It is less common with the younger fishermen, but strangely enough, many of the fishermen were afraid of the water when I was young.”
Historically, having women on a boat was considered to bring bad luck. This superstition ceased to exist in Cape Breton in the early 80s, so when Nona was 12 she started going out with family members to help with the fishing. She continued doing this through her school years.
Buying Fresh Lobster
You can buy live lobster in Cape Breton year-round. The fresh-catch season is from May 15 to July 15, but local distributors keep them in holding tanks throughout the year.
“The price fluctuates wildly from year to year, and sometimes week to week within the season,” explains Nona. “About four years ago, when the US economy was crumbling, demand evaporated overnight. In some cases the price was $3.00 per pound. I remember my father getting more than that in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The price is coming back now, especially with the growing Chinese fine dining scene. This year lobster prices were over $9.00 per pound.”If you #love #lobster, you must visit Cape Breton Island in #NovaScotia. Here's why. Click To Tweet
Ethical and Sustainable Lobster Harvesting
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans oversees the management of the lobster harvest industry by regulating things like catch-size, with very small lobsters being off-limits (lobsters can grow up to 45 pounds and live 100 years). The Cape Breton fishermen have also taken on some of their own initiatives to ensure the sustainability of the lobster population.
“One of the things that makes me proud is the way that people in our area have managed their fishing grounds for the past 100 years,” explains Nona. “Since many people in our Cape Breton community have Highland Gael roots, our beliefs are based on our connection to nature.”
She adds, “In the early years there were disputes about where lobster traps were being placed. The community elders and the local church minister met with the fishermen and came up with an agreement to only set traps on their own frontage. If a person owned waterfront property but didn’t go fishing there, that spot would be shared. The agreement was not written or legally binding, but it still holds to this day and every fisherman in our area abides by it.”
A few years back there was also some concern for the dwindling stocks of lobster, so the local fishermen agreed to reduce the amount of traps they set by 25 traps per boat for the whole season. They also work closely with scientists to learn more about lobsters and how to protect them.
Nona explains, “A while ago the fishermen learned that dumping used bait around the lobsters’ normal habitat [within 9 miles from shore] was not healthy for the ocean floor and the lobsters. Our folks started keeping the old bait on board and disposing of it further offshore. They are always trying to be more protective of the ocean and harvest lobsters sustainably.”Here's why you should go to #NovaScotia for #ethical and #delicious lobster. Click To Tweet
The Flavor of Lobster Meat
Cape Breton lobster is considered by elite chefs to be some of the best in the world due to colder water and “merroir” — environmental conditions that influence the taste of seafood.
“There are many factors that impact the flavor of the lobster,” explains Nona. “First, lobsters molt their shells to grow. In our season, which is about 10 weeks long, the lobster is just at the end of the growing cycle, so the meat is quite juicy. The water is still nice and cold, and it is also pristinely clean due to the lack of industrial development.
Another thing that affects the merroir is the condition of the ocean floor. If there are silty or clay run-offs near the shore, the lobster might taste muddy.
While in Cape Breton, I spent delightful days winding along the world-famous Cabot Trail. I walked over picturesque mountains, alongside lakes, gulfs and the ocean, and past the unique signage in both Gaelic and English. Along the way I took regular breaks to eat copious amounts of lobster served in every way imaginable: with poutine, eggs benedict and pasta, and on pizza. My favorite though was the traditional lobster boil.
After exploring Cape Breton for myself, I agree there is something about this magical place that brings out the very best in the lobster meat — as well as smiles on the faces of those who eat it.
Do you have any ethical Cape Breton Island experiences to add? Please share in the comments below!
Tourism Info: Click here for the tourism board website
Local Lobster Restaurants:
- Baddeck Lobster Suppers
- Lobster Pound Bistro
- Avalon at Castle Rock Country Inn
- Traditional lobster boil with Parks Canada
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