Lobster fishing is a study in repetition. Sheldon and his 21-year-old brother, Darren, watch silently as Le Godouque sidles up next to a buoy. The pair work in a steady, soundless rhythm. One hooks the rope, strung with five rectangular lobster traps, and throws the line over a deck winch to reel them in. The first trap hits the hull with a thump. The crew hauls the trap out, plucks out any lobsters inside, tosses the small ones back and measures the borderline sizes. Darren checks the underside of their tails for eggs, separating acceptable crustaceans upright into a short tube.
The pair rebait the trap with fresh mackerel, tossing rotten fish to shrieking, opportunistic seagulls. Then they repeat the process on four more traps. Sheldon tosses the last trap into the water and, with his father’s push on the boat’s throttle to accelerate, the four other traps tied to the line slide off the back and follow the first into the depths. The rope unspools until the buoy at the end zips off the stern. Darren has been snapping rubber bands on the lobsters’ claws and tossing them into a water-filled bin. The entire five-trap process takes them three minutes to complete. But there are 240 more traps out there.
The work falls into a routine that is soothing. “When I’m on the water, all my worries from onshore disappear,” Sheldon says.
The repetition belies the dangers of the profession. On a day like today, 30 seconds in the frigid water would cause hypothermia. (Last crab season, Sheldon lost a boot when a loop of line wrapped around his foot; if the shoe hadn’t given way, he would have sunk with the trap and probably drowned.) The long offseason — the crew only works two months of lobster and three valuable weeks fishing crab — is slow, and many fishermen collect government unemployment money. There is also not as much money to be made from lobster anymore, since the price on the market dropped in 2009 from $6 a pound to $3.50. Fuel prices are up, too, and, because of the government’s size restrictions on catches, more small lobsters must be tossed back. “We make a lot of money, [but] we pay a lot of bills,” Daniel says. “Me, I just like fishing. So that’s it.”
The eldest Deveau understands why his sons want to inherit Le Godouque and become fishermen. “It’s a good life,” he says, tossing a brief admiring look from the captain’s chair at his boys hauling traps. “They won’t get rich, but they’ll make a living on the water.”
No one comes to Cape Breton by accident. Those who set foot on the island make a conscious choice to do so, either by boarding a ferry or crossing the Canso Causeway by car or bicycle. Perched in high northeast Canada, it’s a three-hour drive from Halifax Stanfield International Airport to the Cape. Travel writers often rate this remote island — which is decorated with inland seas, epic coastlines and mountainous river valleys — one of the most scenic places in the world.
Once on Cape Breton, you are bound by shorelines and limited loops of roads. This lack of outlets causes a keen sense of separation, common to many isles. But Cape Breton is also a cultural island, where Acadian and Scottish heritages are alive and dancing. Being isolated inspires a sense of identity that Capers protect and promote in equal measure.
“Cape Breton is like Scotland; it’s very communal,” says Dave MacDonald, the owner and proprietor of the Normaway Inn, about 20 miles from the shore of Bras d’Or Lake and 15 from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “We’ll let you cross our fields, and we’ll be honored. Just close the gate to keep the cows in.”