From fertilizer to delicacy: The history of lobster fishing in Fortune Bay
There was a time that lobster — if eaten at all — was called 'the poor man's meal'
Many of us in Newfoundland and Labrador have seen capelin rolling on the beaches in the thousands, but it's hard to envisage our beaches being covered with lobster.
But according to Grand Bank historian Aaron F. Buffett (1876-1948), this is exactly the scene that the early settlers in this area of the province at certain times of the year in the 18th century were met with: "lobster so plentiful that during a north-east storm they would be thrown up on the sea-beaches by the tens of thousands, as kelp is often thrown up today."
Being so plentiful, and not then appreciated as a delicacy, they were commonly used as fertilizer. If eaten at all they would be referred to as "the poor man's meal." At the time the method of canning to preserve food hadn't been developed.
This all changed in the early 1800s, when canning was perfected and gained popularity all over the world. It didn't take long before business-minded men from both Canada and the United States arrived with canning equipment to take advantage of the opportunities that the huge stock of Fortune Bay lobsters presented.
Within 20 years, from 1860 to 1880, the population of Grand Bank more than doubled, due largely to the influx of
these entrepreneurs and the skilled workers they brought with them to work in the lobster factories.
In his writings Buffett states, "A man named Stainer was the first manager of a lobster factory established at
Grand Bank. At the same time two Mitchells, Charles and William, came here from Portland, Maine. In addition Elliott, Estano, Fox, Hartling, Lemont, Mimard, Nickerson and possibly others came from Nova Scotia."
All of those who came, with the exception of Stainer, married local girls; some took their families back to Canada, while others remained to continue building the community.
"The fishermen had no connection with the processing, which was attended by boilers, choppers, neck-pickers, packers and sealers; while several men were employed making the cans," writes Buffett.
The early lobster business apparently proved to be very profitable. As soon as enough locals developed the necessary expertise to become "skilled can-makers and sealers," Grand Bank entrepreneurs including the Evanses, the Forseys and the Footes got involved in the fast growing canning-export lobster business.
In 1901 there were 12 lobster factories at Grand Bank. On Nov. 4, 1893, Aaron Buffett, while attending Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., wrote an essay on the history of Grand Bank in which he talks about the number of men who were employed in the different fisheries.
"The lobster fishery lasts about three months, from some-time in May until the 20th of August and employs about 200 persons." He writes the cod fishery "employs 250 men to catch the fish and about 120 to cure it."
Covering the bay
The early Grand Bank operators covered all of Fortune Bay and as far west as McCallum, according to Buffett, and established lobster factories at Lark Harbour, Brig Bay and probably at other points on the northwest coast.
Morgan Foote, and later his sons (known as Foote Brothers), seem to have prosecuted the industry more extensively than others. They had eight factories in Fortune Bay, which required a small steamer and a few "fishing smacks" to collect the lobster from the fishermen. They also established a factory at Baine Harbour in Placentia Bay and went as far afield as Exploits on the northeast coast, where they operated for several years.
When the lobster business went into a decline in the late 1800s, the Footes and others shifted gears and began devoting most of their future business energies into the rapidly growing bank fishery.
The lobster fishery didn't disappear entirely from this area, but over the ensuing decades the focus shifted across the waters of Fortune Bay to the community of English Harbour West and to the firm of J. Petite & Sons Ltd.
Captain Jeremiah (Jerry) Petite, born in Mose Ambrose in 1863, had been involved in the bank fishery and had owned and captained his own vessels. In 1902 he bought the premises of Richard Marshall in English Harbour West and from that site he expanded his business reach, especially during the First World War, when the demand and the price for salt fish peaked.
J. Petite & Sons operated one of the largest and most successful banking operations on the south coast for many years. In 1918 the firm exported 25,000 quintals of dry salt fish to the foreign market, on their own three-masted schooners, to Oporto, Portugal.
From 1914 to 1936, Petite owned four banking schooners in addition to a "canning factory," located at Back Cove in English Harbour West, where lobster and salmon were canned for export.
In 1948 a huge marketing change occurred when Petite began shipping live lobster to the Boston market. Just five years later, ownership of the firm changed hands when Gordon R. Petite, son of Harry and Ada A. Petite, and nephew of Jerry Petite, purchased the business.
Due to Gordon Petite's drive and entrepreneurship the business soon expanded its reach until it had as many as five lobster "smacks" collecting the crustaceans from 400 fishermen, right from the bottom of Fortune Bay to as far west as Francois on the southwest coast.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the lobster fishery in that area went into a decline, with the number of bonafide fishermen participating decreasing to only 150.
Gordon Petite told me in an interview for the Evening Telegram in July 1971, that many egg-bearing and undersized lobster were being caught and kept by people "who are just putting out a few pots for the fun of it."
In the early 1960s the Petite firm bought as much as half a million pounds of lobster annually from local fishermen, but in
1972 the total had dropped to as low as 140,000 pounds.
For several years Petite had pushed his case for lobster conservation at every opportunity, but "only received a deaf ear from the federal authorities in St. John's."
He felt the way to keep the fishery sustainable was better regulation.
"If a person wants a lobster fishing licence, he should be required to use between a minimum and a maximum number of traps and be fishing for a living, as is already the case in Nova Scotia."
'Get them to market in perfect condition'
In 1972-73 lobster fishermen were receiving record high prices, up to $1 per pound; adjusted for inflation, that would be $5.79 today — comparable with prices paid to Newfoundland and Labrador fishers in recent years.
In 1985 Gordon R. Petite died suddenly, when he suffered a massive heart attack. His daughter, Debbie, 31 at the time, took over the management of J. Petite & Sons and continues in that role as president.
In 2016, after the lobster season ended, Petite gave up buying lobster, crab and groundfish, said Debbie Petite.
"The fishing assets were sold to Edmund Quinton, who was financed by OCI [Ocean Choice International], and they are now the current owners and buyers in English Harbour West and surrounding communities," she said.
Petite still operates a supermarket, hardware and building materials business as well as a fuel delivery, mainly delivering fuel to the salmon farms in that area.
Petite shipped live lobster right to the market in Boston on their own vessels from 1948 until 1972, when the local road network was connected with the Trans-Canada Highway. Then Gordon Petite began using his own tractor-trailers to get the lobster to market.
Debbie Petite continued with this practice for some years but finally stopped using her own mode of transportation. She continued to sell to buyers from the U.S., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, however.
"They came to pick them up, so it became their responsibility to get them to market in perfect condition," she said.
"The lobster fishery for us was pretty consistent over the years, as we shipped around 15 tractor loads, close to 500,000 pounds, to market annually. This was in addition to the poundage collected and sold by other buyers in the area."
Petite says the lobster fishery is still viable in the region.
"Lobster is still a lucrative fishery and basically the only fishery in our area," she said.
Started fishing at 11
Lloyd G. Grandy, 78, of Garnish first went lobster fishing with his grandfather, Ernest Grandy, when he was only 11. Their boat was a dory and to get out to set their pots they had to row.
With his grandfather, affectionately known as "Uncle Ern," handling the front pair of oars, the youngster would do his part by using just one oar in the stern, to help by "sculling" the dory.
It wasn't too long before they acquired a motor dory and getting to and from the pots became much easier.
At 15, Lloyd went fishing full time with his father, George. The Grandys were paid 16 cents a pound for their lobster in the early years.
Today, more than sixty years later, Lloyd is still fishing but now he has a well-equipped 27-foot boat and a large, modern shed where he has all the necessary tools to make his own wire lobster traps.
Many fishermen's spouses now go lobster fishing with them and Lloyd's wife, Sadie, is no exception, having gone with him for the past 35 seasons.
In the 1950s there were nine lobster fishermen out of Garnish. Their fishing season would begin early in April when they went after cod. The fish would be split and salted and sold as "salt bulk" to one of the Grand Bank firms or to J. Petite & Sons, across the bay at English Harbour West. The heads and ''sound bones" — vertebrae — of the cod would be saved for baiting lobster pots.
Early in his fishing career, Lloyd and his family did their own canning with the tinned lobster being sold to S. Piercey and Son at Grand Bank. For a season they would net around $200 on their lobster and would catch and sell around 70 quintals of salt bulk cod.
It was hard work back then
Brothers Merrill and Wilfred (Fred) Tibbo of nearby Frenchman's Cove began lobster fishing with their father, Herb, when they were teenagers in the mid-1960s. For the first eight years they fished at Famine Back Cove but since then they have fished out of their home community.
Merrill, now 71, fished lobster for 45 years but now is content to occasionally go out with Fred "to give him a hand."
He grins when he remembers the early days of using a motor dory powered by a four-horsepower Acadian engine.
It was hard work back then, with all the pots having to be set and hauled by hand. It's much easier work today, he says, with hydraulic haulers and larger boats equipped with powerful motors.
"There's no comparison," he said.
The lobster fishery this year was late opening this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and prices were lower than what fishermen were paid in recent years.
However, many lobster fishers still say they had a good season, with about 90 licences fished this year in the Grand Bank to Garnish area of Fortune Bay. This number is up significantly from a decade ago due to the fact that the local fishers have purchased many of the licences from fishers who have left the fishery in other parts of Fortune Bay.
According to DFO, this year there were 261 licences fished in Lobster Fishing Area 11, which includes Fortune Bay and runs as far west as Grand Bruit; the total for the entire province was 2,180.
There has been a dramatic increase in the total landings and value of Newfoundland and Labradors' lobster fishery in the past five years. Harvesters caught 2,116 tonnes of lobster in 2014. In 2019, the total catch was more than double that: 4,663 metric tonnes, valued at more than $65 million.