GLACE BAY — Rough weather delayed the opening of the lobster fishing season off eastern Cape Breton and a nasty spring storm three days later destroyed hundreds of traps up and down the island’s Atlantic coast.
Despite those setbacks and the financial cost of replacing traps that can cost up to $100 or more apiece, fishermen are likely to have a profitable season by the time it ends on July 17 thanks to high landings and fair prices, said Herb Nash, a lobster fisherman out of Glace Bay.
"After the first week and a half and we got straightened away, the season has really been excellent," he told Local Xpress. "It’s one of the best seasons ever."
The lobster season in eastern Cape Breton waters normally runs May 15 to July 15, but after two days of stormy weather at the beginning delayed the opening, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans agreed to extend the fishery the same amount.
However, strong winds and heavy rains May 20 kept boats tied up and left beaches along the coast littered with traps, many containing lobsters that were unsalvageable.
"If we would have known then what we know now, we would’ve asked them to put it off a week," Nash said. "Most of us wouldn’t even have set the first week. We would have been better off waiting."
He worried at the time that the high number of egg-bearing females lost to the storm might affect future catches, but those fears have been eased.
"It’s a concern for the females that were lost, because you’re not going to see it until over a period of time ... but over a period of time you could see a big difference," said Nash. "But as it turns out, there’s that many females out there that we’re seeing more than we ever did.
"We’re seeing a lot more females with eggs on them. We’re seeing a lot more smaller ones. Whatever we’re doing right, our fishery is coming back and it’s getting better. I can see a difference every year.
"It's an excellent sign."
At the same time, fishermen received about $8 a pound for their catch in the first week of the season, and the price has settled around $7 a pound since then, which Nash said was a good price.
After the May 20 storm, DFO reissued tags for lost traps and many fishermen scrambled to recover traps, ropes and buoys. Still, many also had to buy traps and gear — and at premium prices, said Nash.
Some fishermen lost 100 to 150 traps each, he said, and the remnants are still visible at various spots along the shore.
Just off Donkin, in Schooner Pond Cove, lobster boats could be seen this week hauling individual traps, while the beach was strewn with wire and wood traps, buoy markers and rope.
And a large raft of gear — marking the location of dozens of traps, tangled ropes and orange, yellow and white buoys — floated just inshore from the lobster pots being actively fished.
Nash, who is also president of the Glace Bay Harbour Authority, said fishermen will usually recover lost gear to avoid the cost of replacement, but no one wants to go near the snarled mass of gear in Schooner Pond Cove.
"The traps, probably half of them are beat up anyway," he said. "And the only way you’d get it in is to have a big rope or something on it and a tractor or something to haul it in. And by the time you hauled it in on land, your traps are no good anyways.
"If you can get your buoy with this, that’s the best you’re going to do."
The floating mass of markers is also simply too dangerous to approach, said Nash, and the buoys are only worth $4 to $10 each.
"I cut mine out of it," he said. "I don’t know whose are there now. I don’t go near it no more. Almost everybody fishing down there had some and a lot of them just cut their buoys away, the ones they could get at.
"That’s why the buoy pile is small now. There’s still probably 150 traps attached to it.
"Some people don’t go around there because it’s dangerous. A lot of ropes floating around. You go and try and cut your buoy out and the rope can get wound up in your power and then you’re stuck there. You’re stuck attached to them traps and that’s where you’re staying.
"You can’t tow that pile of traps around. You’d never pull that with a boat, so if you get stuck, you’re frigged until you can get a diver to come down."
The snarl of gear doesn’t pose any threat to fishing boats nearby, though, said Nash. They just avoid it.
Lorne Penny, DFO’s chief of resource management in eastern Nova Scotia, said modern lobster and crab fishing gear is designed to reduce the possibility of problems associated with so-called ghost traps — gear that has been lost at sea that continues to capture fish or get tangled around other marine life.
Most traps have a biodegradable escape panel that will eventually disintegrate and let lobsters or crab escape. And in Canada, fishermen are encouraged to use a breakaway device that cuts the buoy rope loose if an inordinately heavy force — like a whale — pulls on it. Breakaway gear is required in some parts of the lobster fishery in Maine and the U.S. eastern seaboard.
Penny said the floating raft at Schooner Pond Cove is in relatively shallow water that is not likely to contain whales.
In general, most fishermen will try to recover lost gear, he said, and are required to do so by the close of a fishing season under the federal Fisheries Act. However, the legislation also gives fisheries officers the discretion to extend the time needed to recover lost gear.
"Guys will make every effort they can to try and retrieve any lost gear ... and if they can’t retrieve it, they’ll seek assistance where possible from other fishermen to get a different boat or whatever to retrieve it," he said.
"Also, just on the DFO side of things, the fishery officers with conservation and protection, they routinely conduct patrols both during the fishery and once the fishery ends to determine if there’s any lost or unretrievable gear, and they’ll make efforts to clean that up as well."