Blockhouse Point Lobster Hatchery

Today Blockhouse lighthouse stands alone on the headland on the western side  of the channel leading into Charlottetown Harbour but from 1904 until 1919 it shared the site with the Dominion Government lobster hatchery.  Chart 2037 (2)Toward the beginning of the twentieth century the lobster industry which had developed seemingly overnight in the 1880s with improvements in canning and packing was facing a crisis. A  glut of lobster which would see thousands of the animals cast onto beaches after storms and which had resulted in the establishment of packing plants across the region was coming to an end. Overfishing and use of increasingly smaller and younger crustaceans forced the gradual introduction of regulation and closed seasons but they were both opposed by the industry.  In 1899 there were 240 canneries across the province and 4,600 fishermen were employed in 2300 boats. In the next decade 60 canneries closed but increased trap numbers meant that the haul continued to increase. Prices were falling and the lobsters were becoming scarce.

One of the responses was the introduction of hatcheries where the “seed lobsters” could be developed.  In this process eggs were removed from the swimmerets under the body of the female lobsters. The “berried” females were acquired from the canneries through regular visits by a tug to areas near the hatchery such as Governor’s Island and Canoe Cove. The eggs were kept in controlled conditions until they hatched, a process that could take from 24 hours to fifteen days depending on water temperature.  Because the young fry were so fiercely cannibalistic they had to be planted almost at once.  They were taken a few miles off-shore and simply scattered in the water. The process seemed to have met with success at a hatchery at Caribou Nova Scotia and in 1904 the decision was taken to build a hatchery at Blockhouse point. The sole photograph I have been able to find shows an extensive wharf, the hatchery building and a keeper’s or staff house. It was under the same management as the trout and salmon hatchery at Kelly’s Pond in Southport.  First reports were encouraging. In 1905 100 million young lobsters were distributed along the coast. The following year weather and other conditions resulted in a shortage of spawn lobsters and only 40 million fry were put into the water.  In 1908 another hatchery was built attached to Queen’s Wharf at Georgetown and eventually its production numbers exceeded those of the Blockhouse hatchery.

Detail from Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing light and hatchery wharf

Detail from Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing light and hatchery wharf

In 1911 a new, stronger wharf was built at the Blockhouse to replace an earlier one damaged by ice. This is probably the one shown in the postcard above. The second wharf was carried away by the ice in the spring of 1916 and was likely not replaced as the usefulness of the hatcheries was beginning to be questioned.  The mind-boggling number of fry produced masked the hatchery’s actual results. American studies estimated a fair survival rate of the lobster fry to maturity was only 2 in 30,000.  The real issue was the extent to which female, egg-bearing lobsters were being taken from the water and put into the cooking and canning process. Leaving the females in the water and not removing their eggs would yield just as many, or perhaps even more young lobsters.  If the lobster industry was to survive there would have to be conservation of the existing stocks rather than stepped up hatchery activity.

1913 saw the report of the Canadian Shellfish Commission presented to the Department. Besides recommendations for further limiting the lobster season and the establishment of a minimum size the Department cautiously noted that as the hatcheries “not having proven an unqualified success” they would be building no more until their benefits were better demonstrated.

Five years later the Minister of Marine and Fisheries stated that efforts had shifted to conservation and that the hatcheries would be closed but that none would be offered for sale…. at this time.

Finally in September 1919 a decision was taken for the government to get out of the hatchery business and tenders were called for the sale or removal of all the lobster hatcheries on the east coast. Besides the two on P.E.I. there were five in Nova Scotia, one in New Brunswick and one on the Gaspe coast.  Unlike other locations the land at the Blockhouse was not sold as it was part of the lighthouse property but the buildings were moved or torn down and the ice at the harbour mouth probably made short work of what was left of the wharf. The great lobster breeding experiment was at an end. Aside from the odd artifact in the waters off the point, all traces of the operation have disappeared.

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2 thoughts on “Blockhouse Point Lobster Hatchery

  1. Pingback: The missing lighthouse at the harbour mouth | Sailstrait

  2. Pingback: W. S. Louson and his pictures of Blockhouse Point | Sailstrait

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