Hanging out on the docks in Chéticamp, Nova Scotia – in northern Cape Breton – we met a boat owner as we were watching the off-loading crew pull some 22,000 snow crab off the boat, “Dad’s Lads.” He was appreciative that we were interested in what they do. He offered to take us out on the boat during the lobstering season.
The conversation that followed allowed us to learn something about the economics, lifestyle, and challenges of deep water ocean fishing in the north. (Deep sea crab fishing on the Bering Sea has been dramatized, if not romanticized in the Discovery Channel series Deadliest Catch.
First a primer on crab fishing. Harvests are carefully regulated and boats have quotas they can catch. The boat Dad’s Lads was allowed to catch roughly 400,000 crab over about a three-month period. A really good run could land 37,000 to 40,000 crab. For this catch the crew pulled 67 traps. On a good day, one trap could haul 700 crab.
The owner of Dad’s Lads was no longer able to actively fish – much to his frustration – due to health problems. His sons were managing two boats, thus the name “Dad’s Lads.” A typical run would have a crew of five or six and be out for twenty-four hours, forty miles out to sea. Once the crab quota was met, the boats would retool to harvest lobster, haddock, or whatever was available.
The physical effort and efficiency of the off-loading process is extraordinary. Crab are pulled from the deep holds in bins; bins are stacked and hoisted off the boat by a crane; bins are dumped (with ice) into large, insulated crates; the crates are hustled into refrigerated semis by forklift. The choreography of this is perfect. The offloaders are paid by the pound and no time or effort is wasted. Still, much of this work is pure muscle power.
The going price for crab and lobster is now relatively high. Crab off the boat are bringing $5.50 CAD, and lobster as much as $12 CAD.
The explanation for these prices is an interesting fishing example of the globalized economy. Shortfalls in crab fishing in Alaska are translating into relatively high prices in Nova Scotia. Globally the demand for crab is high, so wherever there is supply, the prices have climbed. For the crews in Nova Scotia, where the quotas and yields have been high this year, this is all very good news.
The takeaway, however, is how much these fishermen love their work, the sea, and the chase. The hardship of it all, combined with the passion for the work, is hard to fathom for those of us in the office-chair economy — but inspirational. It reminded me of Studs Terkel’s book Working, and the special quality of some occupations that combine such hard work with such pride in work.