When lobsters were half a cent each, and other stories

Just a few generations ago lobster was considered a poor man's food, and farmers used lobster bodies as fertilizer on their fields.

Fishing lobster in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Fisherman Robbie Robertson with the wooden dory he built from his father's design. (Dutch Thompson)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

Lobster season is about to begin on P.E.I. and consumers are eagerly awaiting that first "feed" of succulent Island lobster. Even with relatively high prices last year, consumers weren't grumbling about shelling out for one of their favourite fresh delicacies. 

Imagine, then, just a few generations ago — when lobster was considered a poor man's food, and farmers used lobster bodies as fertilizer on their fields. 

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Down in Clyde River here, they were selling them for 10 cents a pound," Rev. Donald Nicholson told Dutch Thomspon. "And in some cases they were just putting them on the land, for manure ... there was no market for them." 

Nicholson grew up inland, in Hartsville, P.E.I., and did not eat lobster, or much seafood at all, growing up. 

This postcard image from the P.E.I. archives some time between 1920 and 1950 shows lobster fishing in Murray Harbour on a much smaller scale than today. (PARO AccAcc4483/6)

Gus Gregory not only ate lobsters as a child but went to sea himself. He grew up in the Souris area hearing tales of the bygone days from his father, also a fisherman. 

Accidental conservation

In his father's time — around the turn of the 20th century — fishermen were paid 50 cents per 100 lobsters, Gregory said, or just half a cent per lobster. 

Gus Gregory talks lobster fishing in P.E.I.'s bygone days.

4 years ago
Duration 0:29
Gus Gregory talks lobster fishing in P.E.I.'s bygone days. 0:29

"And when the dory was getting full of lobsters, they dropped the big ones over and kept the little ones — because you'd get as much for a small one as you would for a big one," Gregory said. Without realizing it, they were throwing back larger breeding lobsters that would bolster stocks in coming years. 

"Any children that went to school then with a lobster sandwich, they were considered very poor people because they had to eat lobster," Gregory recalls. 

Gregory fished with his father starting at 13 or 14 years old, then in 1937, went fishing on his own. 

$12 for a 60-hour work week

By the 1930's lobster was worth 1.5 cents a pound, or $1.50 for 100 pounds of lobster. All fish was cheap in those days — Gregory sold both hake and cod for 25 cents for 100 pounds — a quarter of a cent a pound. 

Nice catch! This archive image shows William Bernard holding a large lobster in O'Leary, P.E.I. circa 1910. (PARO Acc2767/13)

However, wages in the fishery were correspondingly low. Few fishermen were independent back in those days, he said — fishermen worked for the cannery, which owned the boat, bait and gear — sometimes even the fishermen's clothes. 

"I worked on MacLean's wharf for a couple of summers and I got $12 for a 60-hour week. 20 cents an hour. And that was good money then!" Gregory recalled. "MacLean's paid their farm help 15 cents an hour." 

At one time there were dozens of lobster canneries across the Island — one on almost every point and cove. Gregory remembers 14 canneries in just the 37 kilometres from East Point to Naufrage, P.E.I.

Gus Gregory got his own fishing boat in 1937 and recalls that fishermen used to throw back larger lobster to make room in their boats for more smaller lobsters. (Dutch Thompson)

'Not even a doghouse'

Robbie Robertson of Kingsboro, between Souris and East Point, fished lobster, cod and hake for more than 60 years. He and his brother owned their own boat — back when fishing boats on P.E.I. were nothing but a small, open dory made of wood. 

Five generations of the Poirier family in Tignish circa 1904 — their lobster-fishing heritage obviously a source of pride. (PARO Acc2755/3-33)

"We didn't even have any shelter, not even a doghouse they called them, on the boat," Robertson told Dutch. A "doghouse" was a cabin enclosure fishermen could stand in over the engine, to shelter from rain and wind.

"On a cold day it was hard to stop to eat your lunch, you had to keep working." 

Robertson cleared at most $100 during a two-month lobster season. Like many fishermen in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was happy to get three or four cents a pound.

This archive image of Cavendish was published in the Prince Edward Island Magazine of January 1900 with the caption 'A P.E.I. Lobster Cannery.' (PARO Acc 3466/HF72.66.4.32)

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With files from Sara Fraser