Homarus americanus—the American lobster—is a shy, nocturnal creature. It favours dark, craggy seabeds, where it can blend in and avoid the watchful eyes of predators. Over the last century, through no fault of its own other than its deliciousness, it has become a cultural and gustatory icon, considered a delicacy around the world. Indeed, it is Canada’s number-one seafood export. Who hasn’t tried it with a splash of garlic butter?
Innu of Quebec’s Côte-Nord region once knew it as ashatsheu: that which moves backwards. And long before a commercial fishery existed, many Indigenous peoples around the Gulf of Saint Lawrence counted on the humble crustacean as a staple of their summertime diet. Edmond Mestenapeo, a former Chief of the Unamen Shipu Innu Reserve some 400 kilometres downstream from Sept-Îles, says that for his First Nation, lobster fishing, though a pleasant activity, isn’t merely about having fun: “It’s a means of subsistence. Just like hunting.”
Most people associate lobster fishing in Eastern North America with lobster traps—those rectangular netted cages usually placed at a considerable depth below the surface of the sea and far offshore. But few have seen lobster being fished the traditional Indigenous way. At Unamen Shipu, you can... up close.
Plying very shallow waters on rocky Saint-Lawrence shores, where lobster is easily visible, the Innu fishermen use dip nets—similar to a regular mesh fishing net, but with a long handle. The lobster can back right up into it, no harm done. “Before,” says Edmond, “the Innu would fish with a large hook, but sometimes that would injure the lobster. About 40 years ago, we changed methods. The dip net works well, and you can see right away if you’ve caught a female or a small lobster. If it’s a female, or if it’s under four inches [10 cm] long [from the eye socket to the end of the carapace], you put it back in the water. It’s how we make sure we have lobster for the future. When times are good, we have plenty of lobster.”
Mestenapeo is now the tourism and economic development officer for Winipeukut Nature. He and his colleagues have designed three-night, four-day adventures for visitors interested in exploring traditional ways of life in Unamen Shipu. Though the community has an airport, the most exhilarating way to arrive is on the Bella Desgagnés cargo and passenger ship—a two-and-a-half-hour voyage. from the village of Kegaska, where Highway 138 ends. Following a guided tour of the town, with its thriving Indigenous crafts scene and welcoming residents, visitors are provided accommodations in the local hotel or the new Innuberge chalets, then embark on a zodiac or motorboat for a two-night island stay in tents.
The lobster that the trained guides catch (the season runs May 15–July 15, after which the species is reproducing and moulting) are boiled in cauldrons with seawater over an open fire. It doesn’t get much more authentic than that. “We’re very proud to share our traditions,” says Edmond. And the traditions are being passed down: His nine-year old son is now a confident lobsterman.
On Chaleur Bay
Far to the southwest of Unamen Shipu, across the Gulf and the Gaspé Peninsula, the Mi’kmaq communities of Listuguj and Gesgapegiag also have a longstanding tradition of lobster fishing. Here, the lobster is known as jagej, and though there is an increasing emphasis on the commercial fishery, the arthropod still plays a significant role in the lives of the inhabitants, providing a valuable food source.
In Listuguj, a fall lobster fishery is held to feed the community. “We have no intention of increasing our fishing effort beyond what is sustainable,” explains Fred Metallic, director of natural resources for the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government. And tourism is ramping up: Over in Gesgapegiag, diners and dives make the ideal pit stop for anyone looking to sample the shellfish without having to get out on the water. These friendly joints sell both live and cooked lobsters. Garlic butter optional.