Fisherman’s Pride ~ Homarus Americanus

Homarus americanus, aka the American lobster, is found only in the waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Its range runs from the Labrador Sea to Long Island Sound. The American lobster is the only double-clawed lobster in the world; one claw is used for crushing, and the other for cutting. Individual lobsters may carry their crushing claw on their left or right side, making them left or right-handed just like humans.

In 1597, in the harbour of Cibou (Sydney, Cape Breton), it was recorded that “one haul of a little dragnet brought up 140 lobsters.” This was a time when the crustacean was known to the Mi’kmaq people as Wolum Keeh, and seemed endlessly plentiful in every bay and cove. Lobsters did not have much value back then, or for the next 200 years. They were considered food for the common folk, who would gather them by the basketful along the shoreline or by setting out fish guts for bait and then spearing the crustaceans in shallow water as they scuttled in for a feed. Lobsters began to have some commercial value when fishermen began to use traps and pots adapted from European models so that the catch would not bear disfiguring spear marks.

The first technological revolution in the lobster industry was the invention of the “stamp can” in 1847. This breakthrough enabled lobsters to be preserved and sent to far-away markets. But it was an imperfect means of food preservation that was hardly 100% reliable in fending off food spoilage. In fact, the “stamp can” gave rise to a very telling expression of the time, “green in the sea, red in the pot, black in the can.”

No safety regulations governed the commercial trade, the first lobster factories were the fisherman’s own kitchens. They would bring their catch ashore, take it home and boil it up. The meat would then be extracted with the whole family pitching in. The meat was packed in cans and covers were fitted to the can and sealed with a band of solder. Holes were then punched in the can cover, brine would be forced into the can to preserve the meat, and the holes were then sealed over. Sanitary conditions throughout the process were governed by the tidiness of the fishermen’s wife and how well she kept her kitchen. Eventually, canneries began to take shape on wharves all along the shore. By the end of the nineteenth century, a lobster cannery was operating during the lobster season in just about every cove and harbour along the shoreline.

By the turn of the twentieth century, 900 canneries were at work in Atlantic Canada. Some of those factories were not much more than shacks hammered together from whatever materials happened to be at hand. But they were centres of economic activity for the coastal communities that were starting to form around them.

A popular book, Those Were the Days, chronicles the heyday of the cannery community. “Many young girls from the surrounding communities found work at the factories”, says the book. “A bunkhouse was provided and they would live there during the packing season. Since this was probably their first experience at living away from parents’ watchful eyes, romance flourished between the young female employees and the boys who worked at the factory or on the fishing boats.” Romance aside, the work meant cash money to hard-pressed families, even though wages were low. Most factory workers were paid five or six dollars a month for long hours on the factory floor, six days a week.

Fisherman didn’t do much better. Young boys of ten or eleven were expected to go to the boats and help set and haul traps owned by the factory. Fishermen were paid at the end of the season, between two and three cents a pound – with expenses deducted by the cannery operators. Catches could be as good as they are today – up to 4,000 pounds for a day’s haul.

After 1910, the development of internal combustion engines began to modernize the fleet. At the same time, many of the small canneries began to disappear because of the improvements in land transportation while others developed more processing capacity. It was the next development in food preservation that completely changed the seafood processing industry; the introduction of the blast freezer, capable of preserving the flavour of fresh caught lobster and other fish without spoilage. For that, the seafood processing industry must be in perpetual debt to an American inventor named Clarence Birdseye.

Preserving food by freezing is an ancient technique widely used by the Inuit people of Canada’s North Country. During a trip to Labrador in 1916, to assist the Grenfell Mission, Mr. Birdseye tasted food frozen by the Inuit in barrels of seawater for the first time. He noticed that duck, caribou meat and fish, if quickly frozen, retained its flavour and texture remarkably well. Birdseye reasoned it must be the rapid freezing of food in very low temperatures that made the difference in retaining freshness.

In 1923, he spent seven dollars on an electric fan, buckets of brine and cakes of ice. From that small investment, he became a millionaire. He experimented and the modern day technique of blast freezing had its genesis in those experiments. The first frozen foods, packaged in cardboard boxes coated with wax, were offered to the American market in 1930. Twenty years later, his techniques were being adopted everywhere in the world, including the lobster industry on Prince Edward Island.

Since Birdseye’s time blast freezing has become the foundation of the seafood processing industry worldwide, making it possible to preserve foodstuffs with the flavour, freshness and nutrients of the original product. Because of him, we can maximize our profits by increasing our distribution to a global-scale market and sell our product anywhere in the world.