METEGHAN RIVER, N.S. – As fishermen have been working in yards and on wharfs preparing gear for the upcoming lobster season, the region’s largest family-run private boat yard has been marking its 80th anniversary in business.
And while A.F. Theriault and Son Ltd. in Meteghan River continues to diversify and expand its product line, lobster fishing boats continue to be a mainstay.
“It’s all part of A.F. Theriault, we’re building lobster boats all the time,” says Gilles Theriault, managing director of the company, and a third generation of Theriaults that have worked here.
“We’ve modernized the technology and the construction. We build them out of advanced composite core, so no wood goes into the construction of the vessel. It makes a longer durable vessel and a very strong boat,” he says.
“We’re booked up for a while,” Theriault says. “We’re several boats behind, which is a good thing.”
The company also has a new 100-ton boat trailer that they purchased and a boat launch they constructed, to handle and haul lobster boats, Theriault says.
In addition to building lobster boats, repairs and servicing is part of the ongoing effort.
Graham Oakley is A.F. Theriault and Son Ltd.’s vice-president of new construction. He says in the last 80 years more than 900 vessels of all types have been fabricated at A.F. Theriault and Son Ltd., evolving from the wooden boats of the past to state-of-the-art aluminum, steel, fiberglass and composite vessels, research vessels, patrol vessels, fishing and aquaculture vessels, workboats, pleasure crafts and passenger ferries.
Lobster boats, Graham says, remain an important part of the work that takes place at the Digby County boatyard.
He says in recent years – during and after a season where landings were quite high – a lot of orders came in for new lobster vessels as fishermen were feeling confident about the state and future of the fishery. And/or they felt the timing was right to move ahead with something they had been putting off for a long time – a new boat.
“Everybody’s order books were full for a couple of years,” Oakley says.
He says it has since levelled off, but construction remains steady as there are still a lot of boats being built throughout the region.
Fishing boats are restricted to length by licence conditions, but Oakley says fishermen have been going wider with their vessels over the years.
“Most of the boats are 28 to 30 feet wide now, some fishermen are even asking, ‘What’s the widest boat you build? I want one wider,’” he says. “I would say the norm now is a very wide boat and it’s a challenge because our molds were never designed for that so we’re stretching our molds out.”
Oakley also says a feature that has become more standard on boats is a live well.
Live wells are holding tanks on a boat filled with salt water for the storage of lobsters before they are brought to shore.
“All of the new boats now have live wells. That’s sort of the standard because it’s so important to keep the lobster live and healthy and keep the quality up,” says Oakley.
Of course, many fishermen don’t just fish for lobster. They have licences for multiple species and so they want their boats to reflect that.
“Most of the boats are going to be used for dual purpose,” Oakley says. “The use them for lobster fishing but they also want them for longlining or tuna or swordfishing. There’s a lot of guys that still have scallop licences.” Herring fishing also takes place.
“They want the boats geared up so they can be easily changed over from one species to the next,” Oakley says, adding if you’re going to have a large mortgage on a boat you don’t want to see it sitting idle for six months of the year.
And while it is boatyards that construct the boats, it is the fishermen who are giving the direction.
“Fishermen know what they want, they know what they like. Some people like a Pubnico-built boat, some people like a Meteghan-built boat, some like them coming from Cape Island, they all have their preferences and that’s fine,” Oakley says. “You have to respect that, that’s for sure. They’re always right.”
And so, a lot has changed from 80 years ago when Augustin (Gus) Theriault and his wife Elizabeth founded A.F. Theriault and Son Ltd. in 1938 – which has since seen a second, third and fourth generation of the family involved in the business.
Graham Oakley – who like other employees is treated like family – says as the company continues to branch out, and technology and construction continues to improve and evolve, the business still remains committed to its roots, especially when it comes to supporting the lobster fishery.
“It’ll be part of the core business for a very, very long time,” he says. “You can’t take a year off from building lobster boats. You’ve got to keep the lobster boats going all the time.”
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