The British oil tanker "Kurdistan" sinking off the Cape Breton coast
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
MMA, MP17.16.25, M86.72.5, Canadian Coast Guard
Undeniably the greatest changes in the fishing industry have been the result of the technological revolution. Today, sophisticated navigational systems rely on satellite information fed into onboard computers more powerful than those used to launch the Apollo mission to the Moon in 1969.
Such radical transformation has prompted those who have witnessed the change over the years - from "wide-open" wooden boats to today's antennae-riddled cabins - to ask, paraphrasing the saying, whether you can make a computer technician into a fisherman?
Before the micro-computer age, the only navigational tools at the fisherman's disposal were a compass and wristwatch. A fisherman charted his course by marking how long he traveled at a certain bearing, a technique which could be relied on regardless of the weather and visibility. Even blinded by the most disorienting fog, this simple system could steer a fishermen home so long as the Earth's poles stood still, and time didn't.
He would also rely heavily on landmarks - or watermarks - like breakers, a shoal, a certain buoy. You might even hear some of the older fishermen claim they "just knew" where they were. (They also relied on caution and luck: neither lifejackets nor fire extinguishers were aboard.) Other than compass and wristwatch, a simple innovation in fishing was the "sounding lead" or "lead line." Once 8 or 9 kilometres out, a fishermen could determine the water's depth by "sounding": sinking a greased lead weight, attached to a line, which, when pulled back up would tell him whether the ground was soft (if the lead returned "sandy") or hard (if it came up "dry"). This is to today's technology what the proverbial cans attached by a string are to the Blackberry[TM].
Today, fishermen have an arsenal of computer equipment at their disposal: Global Positioning Systems (GPS), chart plotters, sonar, and other devices used to help a fishermen mark a "hot spot".
The most recent development is a system that brings all these components together under one control operation, giving fishermen the ability to 3-dimensionally map the waters at the bottom, to look at a computer screen onboard and see the ocean floor as the fish see it: every hump, every canyon, every shoal (a sandy elevation of the bottom, constituting the floor of a shallow area); every edge, where the hard ground meets the soft, and where the lobster prefer to congregate. "Virtual" scuba-diving, you might say. You might also say, as more than one fishermen has, "the lobsters don't stand a chance."
All the technology in the world didn't stop the 1979 sinking of a British oil tanker, the Kurdistan, which broke apart in the Cabot Straight, spilling 7000 tons of oil into the ice-filled waters near the Cape Breton shoreline. Shortly thereafter, in the mid-80s, the lobster fishery saw a significant expansion; "explosion" by some accounts. While it doubled in some areas, the area of which Main-à-Dieu is a part (Area 27, from Cape North, around Bay St. Lawrence, to Fourshu/Gabarus Line, past Gayan Island) saw a total quadrupling of its stocks in the forty years leading up to the early nineties. Some claimed the stunning increase was the result of the tanker spill. Lobsters, after all, are attracted to "oily" food! "I once caught a lobster with a heavily buttered bun," says a fisherman, without ruling out fluke. (What he does rule out is that if the lobster fishery were ever seriously threatened, that the Fishermen's Association would just sink an oil tanker offshore.) What's more likely, though, he says, is that the black crude absorbed the heat from the sun, warming the surrounding waters to conditions just right for a lobster boom.