Ever been to sea, lobster fishing?

Crawl a’board the Nellie Row!

Nova Scotia Lobster Crawl

We’re heading into the last week of Nova Scotia Lobster Crawl 2022, the February-long celebration and showcase of all thing’s lobster, here on Nova Scotia’s South Shore – and it’s lobster season.

Amid the flurry of lobster-stuffed rolls, lobster-inspired events and festivities, it’s a race against time, let’s face it – February is the shortest month of the year and there’s more than 80 events, dishes and experiences to be had. Preparing and planning this unique and successful festival is a year-round undertaking, and then it all comes down to a short 28 days.

It must be what it’s like to go lobster fishing.

While the season along the South Shore encompasses fishing areas 33 and 34, running from the last Monday in November to May 31st, it really is a year-round undertaking. And, while it is always lobster season somewhere in Nova Scotia, ‘our’ season is during the most treacherous of seas, extreme temperatures and unkind weather – winter on the North Atlantic Ocean.

Although it’s a six-month season, it really all comes down to one day, Dumping Day.

Preparing for Dumping Day Photo by John Batten

Dumping Day is what we call the first day of the season around these parts. It’s when all the boats leave the wharves, ladened down with traps, lights on and engines pushed to the max, steaming out to ‘set their traps’ in their preferred (bountiful) location. It’s a highly competitive, and dangerous, event that starts at the crack of dawn.

Home to a fishing fleet of some 1700 fishing boats for this season, at its heart is Barrington – THE Lobster Capital of Canada! Landing about 40 percent of Canada’s lobster (making up about 20% of the North American landings) from the waters just off their shores, there’s a deep-rooted pride in, and respect for, the lobster fishing industry around these parts – and savoured around the world.

Seems fitting that when we caught up with lobster fisherwoman Captain Gail Atkinson of the Nellie Row earlier this month in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, we discovered, she too has a connection to the Lobster Capital of Canada. With a name like Atkinson, we should have known!

Hailing from Cape Sable Island, Atkinson has fishing in her blood. Over a coffee nearby at No. 9 just minutes from where her boat is tied up, she and deckhand Annie Featherstone, chuckle as she recalls her childhood. “Dad was a lobster fisherman. I was always helping out – preparing bait bags, helping build our (wooden) traps, but I was always left wharf-side, like all the other girls,” says Atkinson, at least until she turned 27. That’s when she started lobster fishing. 

Fishing wasn’t something she’d thought she’d do when she ‘grew up’. Atkinson says “Lobster fishing just wasn’t something girls did. It didn’t seem like an option at the time…one just never knows where life will take you.”  

Bit by the fishing bug after a tuna fishing trip in the 90’s, what followed seemed to be her destiny, keeping the family tradition alive, she began a fishing career.

Two decades later, in 2015, as she turned 50, she embarked on another new chapter. She became Captain of her own lobster fishing boat. With a lobster fishing license in hand, the Nellie Row was launched. A 50’ x 20’ Atkinson design Cape Islander, just like her Dad’s, Atkinson says, “she’s named in honour of my Grandmother, Nellie. She worked until she was 65 in the boat yard, the same one my ‘Nellie’ was built”.  The ‘Row’ in Nellie Row honours the dory boat and tradition of rowing them around these parts.

photo courtesy of John Batten

Going about their business, like the other 20 or so lobster boats fishing out of Lunenburg, in 2019 the media caught whiff of the news that the ‘Nellie Row’ was an all-female crew. In the approach to Dumping Day that same year, the Nellie Row was proclaimed to be Canada’s first all-female crewed lobster fishing boat. Humbled by the attention, Capt. Atkinson remains committed to lobster fishing first, but makes it a priority to ensure women interested in lobster fishing, have the chance to do so.

Embraced by the community, Atkinson says her crew has always come to the deck with experience at sea – onboard Bluenose II and Picton Castle – just not much lobster fishing experience. “So we learn, work hard and make sure we’re prepared, making adjustments that enable us to work smarter” says Atkinson, “just like I’ve always done on all the other boats I’ve crewed with over the years”.

While giving females a chance to try fishing has been a goal, Atkinson says she’s been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement she’s received. It’s also evolved to be a huge responsibility. Following the media coverage in 2019, she’s been in awe of the number of families that reach out, wanting to bring their daughters aboard, saying, “they’ll always be welcomed”.

The Nova Scotia Lobster Crawl has always been about celebrating our lobster fishing heritage, culture and industry, but it’s about the people, the lobster fishing Captains and their crew.

Wanting to know even more, we posed a trap full of questions at Capt. Atkinson! Graciously, she offered plenty of insights … come on, crawl a’board the Nellie Row with us!

Q: How big and what type of boat is the Nellie Row?
A: The Nellie is a 50’ x 20’ Atkinson designed Cape Island fishing vessel.

Q: The Nellie Row is red – why red?
A: My Dad’s boat was black by my Grandmother and Mom’s favourite colour is red. So, of course, she’s red!

Q: How many Crew the Nellie Row?

A: There are three in our crew at the moment. Sometimes in the Spring we’ll go down to two, and at the beginning couple of weeks of the season we’ll have a crew of four.

Q: The stack on traps aboard on Dumping Day are impressive – how many do you set/fish?
A: We fish 250 traps – wire traps, all season.  They are lighter and easier to work with.
“We like to work smarter, not harder.” Perhaps the wooden traps fish better….jury is out on that one. We’ll keep doing what we do. Our traps from home – “Island Traps”, in Clark’s Harbour, on Cape Sable Island. Other gear comes from a variety of businesses – Vernon Deon’s, Spartan, Rainbow Netting and Rigging to name a few.

photo courtesy of John Batten

Q: Where do you ‘fish’?
A: We steam approximately 2 hours out of Lunenburg at the moment, but it varies, as we move our gear around.

Q: Gotta ask, it’s winter, and rough out there, why? Why do you go fishing?
A: We lobster fish for so many reasons. Mostly, we love being on the ocean, working out in the elements, and the satisfaction we get from making our living this way. We love the challenge of fishing. Also, it’s nice to be your own boss.

Q: Fishing Areas 33 and 34 is fraught with challenges, what are your biggest?
A: It’s very competitive out here on the water, but we look out for each other. For me, the biggest challenges are staying on the lobsters, working with Mother Nature, and keeping a good crew. We are one of about 12 lobster boats out of Lunenburg.

Q: You fish December – May, how cold does it get out there?

A: It gets just as cold out on the water as it does on the land. Windchills can be in the minus 20’s. Add to that freezing spray, and it can make for an intense time out there.

Q: How ‘big’ was your largest lobster landed?

A: So far, we’ve never caught any enormous lobsters. I think the biggest was a 12 pounder – the one pictured was about 10 lbs!

A: I think sometimes fishing might get romanticized a bit…that it’s a simple, laidback lifestyle. There’s a lot of risk involved; both safely-wise, and also financially. It’s an expensive fishery. Licenses, boats, gear, etc. are not cheap and the price of bait and fuel is soaring at the moment.

I think there are many people out there who see the big price tag on lobsters, and think we’re raking in the bucks. I think it’s more a case of lobster prices catching up to the cost of doing business.

Q: When you’re not fishing, what do you do for fun?
A: When we’re not out fishing, we dream of catching lobsters…lol Actually, we have a variety of interests like running, hiking, cycling, camping, rowing, sailing, reading, hanging with friends, good food…all the usual good stuff!

Q: Do you sell your lobster direct to the public?
A: Pre-COVID, we primarily sold direct to buyers within the lobster industry. In 2020, amidst what was shaping up to be a great season, everything shut down. The demand for lobster internationally plummeted. We had lobster, so we started selling from the wharf here in Lunenburg. Since then, with a welcomed partnership from Saltbox Brewery in Mahone Bay, we’re even able to deliver fresh ‘Nellie Row’ lobster to customers in Halifax. That’s been a new, fun twist I didn’t see coming – we’re available ‘online’

Q: You seem to be very ‘social’, not many boats have their Facebook and Instagram handles on their stern – what’s that all about?

A: We’re proud to be a part of the lobster fishing industry, we’ve been using social media to offer insights about what it is like to lobster fish here, and on our boat – make it more accessible and debunk some of the myths, and mysteries. Bridging the ‘lobster pot to plate’ gap is important, there’s so much more to lobster fishing than just eating it.

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We hope you’ve enjoyed your time a’board the Nellie Row. The next time you’re in Lunenburg, be sure to swing down to the waterfront, pop over to the Government Wharf to catch up with the Nellie Row, and maybe Capt. Atkinson. They’re proudly nestled between the Picton Castle and the Dory Shop on the historic waterfront within the UNESCO World Heritage town they call their Homeport.

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