Why Cape Breton Island Has the Most Delicious Lobster In The World

cape breton island

Photo credit – Kate Robertson

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.

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Cape Breton Lobster Fishing Boats – Kate Robertson

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.

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Fresh lobsters ready for the boil – Kate Robertson

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.”

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cape breton island

Cape Breton Lobster Fishing Boat – Kate Robertson

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.”

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Offshore lobster fishing boat, Cape Breton Island – Kate Robertson

 

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
cape breton island

Lobster harvesting in the wee hours of the morning – courtesy of Destination Cape Breton

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.

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Famous Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island – Kate Robertson

 

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! 

Food Guide | Eating Lobster in Cape Breton Island

Addition Information: 

Tourism Info: Click here for the tourism board website

Local Lobster Restaurants: 

Packing Essentials:

Great Reads:

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Kate Robertson

Kate Robertson is a Canadian freelance writer and a regular contributor to a variety of magazines. She is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada. Kate has a passion for active solo travel, and her writing interests include active/adventure travel, culture, food & drink, spas, health & wellness, responsible tourism, and epic offbeat adventures. Follow her travels on social media.

22 Comments

  1. I visited Cape Breton in August of 2016. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been! The people were so friendly. We were not able to have lobster anywhere, being told that the season had ended the month before.

  2. Both my Mother and Father were born and raised in Cape Breton. Although I was born in Ontario I still feel a certain kinship with the Cape. The people and the hospitality on that island are some of the greatest in the world. I’ve been eating Cape Breton lobster since the early 70’s. Every late spring we would venture off to Pearson International Airport to pick up a box of live lobsters that my Uncle would send from Sydney. It was a yearly tradition that was thoroughly enjoyable. Thank you for your wonderful article. But shhhhhh…don’t tell anyone else about this best kept secret.

  3. I grew up on CAPE BRETON ISLAND. We would go to Main-a-Dieu to pick up our first lobster of the season. we would go back to the cottage start a small fire on the beach and my father would use the ocean water to boil the lobsters over the fire. you just cant beat lobsters boiled in ocean water and eating them right out of the pot. ahhh..to be home again!

  4. If you haven’t eating lobsters in other parts of Nova Scotia how can you say that about Cape Breton our season is from the last Monday in November until May and our waters are very cold.

  5. Lobster are never put in a pot in which the water is not already boiling . That would be quite cruel. Lobster are never cooked with the rubber bands on the claws. They must be removed or the taste of the bands will leach into the lobster meat.

  6. During the summer months, each town has its own festivals. They’re a lot of fun a great chance to socialize all over the island. Some festivals last a week, lots of things to do and tour.

  7. I have lived in Main-A-adieu all my life and my dad was a fisherman. He always said it was because the water was so cold off Cape Breton was the reason the lobsters were so tasty. And I have tried lobsters in other parts of the world and our lobsters are much more tasty and have a delicious favour about them. There’s nothing like a Main-A-Dieu lobster cooked in the ocean water on the beach, cracking them on the rocks, we have cooked many of them on the beach. Can’t wait for the season to open…..

  8. You never mentioned the French Acadian in Cape Breton which make up a great part of Cape Breton.We have a great traditional heritage in Cape Breton and it brings me great sadness that you have not mentioned it.And yes we trap and love Our Lobster very much!

    1. Hi Ernest, I loved learning about the French Acadian culture while I was there–it’s worthy of a whole article of its own!

  9. A friend of mine who worked for Clearwater Fine Foods told me that when Asian buyers flew in to test the product, they wanted lobster from an area known as Cape Breton Shore – the area from the Canso Causeway to Louisbourg and area.This would encompass the Atlantic coast of Inverness, Richmond, and the south east part of Cape Breton County. The reason would be a rocky bottom with little silt or clay and cold water as mentioned in the article. Personally, be it from Cape Breton or the Mainland, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad lobster. Some were “fuller” than others but none were bad. Trick is to boil them in sea water.

    1. Hi Acadian, yes, I heard that Cape Breton lobster is earning a great reputation all over the world!

  10. I’m asking because I want to know, so please keep any nasty comments to yourself. Is there another way to kill a lobster that is humane? I can’t imagine being boiled alive not being agony. As for ones who think lobsters don’t feel this, all animals have nerves

    1. That’s a good question, Diane; my understanding is that’s why you put them upside down first–to stun them, making it more humane.

  11. Good article but what it lacks is the mention of the Acadian culture. Most of the pictures are from the Grand Etang and Cheticamp area. These communities are not Gaelic or English. The majority of the people in these fishing communities are French Acadians. That’s why I do not give this article a “great article” status.

    1. I did get to experience some of the Acadian culture while I was there, Yolande, like the Centre de la Mi-Careme, and absolutely loved it!

  12. As a cape breton’er myself from glace bay I must say I grew up on eating lobster and had it in many places around the world and must say we do have tasty lobster my favorite is the shore boil with ocean water and lots of real butter!!!! Just wanted to say there is no place like home miss ya cape Breton I’ll be home soon !!!

    1. I loved the shore boil, Chris–and I can understand why you would want to get back to Cape Breton soon!

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