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Basin Head Fisheries Museum focuses on island traditions

Basin Head Fisheries Museum’s first director, Regan Paquet, in the early 1970s went about gathering old fishing gear that he thought would someday be treasures. Above, a room of small craft.

Dirk Van Susteren for The Boston Globe

Basin Head Fisheries Museum’s first director, Regan Paquet, in the early 1970s went about gathering old fishing gear that he thought would someday be treasures. Above, a room of small craft.

SOURIS, Prince Edward Island — King cod is dead. Fishing for it has been eclipsed on this eastern end of the province by lobstering, mussel farming, oyster harvesting, and by the hunt for 1,000-pound bluefin tuna.

Anglers cast for mackerel from the town wharf, troll for trout in the Souris River, and dig for clams on sandbars. In winter, hardy souls still spear eels through holes in the ice.

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Fishing — along with farming and fiddling — is colorfully weaved into the island’s fabric.

For the tourists lured by PEI’s fishing traditions there’s even another option: a visit to the Basin Head Fisheries Museum, located 8 miles east of town on a bluff high above one of the island’s most popular beaches.

Here, visitors can dwell on fishing techniques of past and present, explained through a host of dioramas, film clips, original art, artifacts, and stuffed fish. There are sun-bleached dories to whet imagination, mid-20th-century canning machinery, vintage rakes, brining tubs, colorful buoys of all shapes, and lobster traps.

Wander through this airy building and note the photos of seafarers, the shelves of radio equipment used when the technology was in its infancy, and the centerpiece of the second floor, a huge 19th-century lighthouse prism made of crystal and solid brass.

Regan Paquet is the museum’s first director and the artist who in the early 1970s began “scrounging and using all kinds of tricks” to gather things he knew would someday be treasures. It was a challenge. Back then many fishermen were still using the equipment of their forefathers.

With a laugh, Paquet recalled three days in February at Basin Harbor’s inlet when he trudged across ice with armfuls of store-bought, flexible eel spears that he swapped with fishermen for their older tools.

The dioramas showing fishing scenes, from smelting to scalloping, are all thanks to Paquet. He made nets of twine, reshaped plastic toys into fishermen, and cut Plexiglas to serve as the sea surface.

There’s much to learn here. For example, did you know you that:

In the 1830s, after fishermen from Gloucester had depleted cod stocks, there began a mackerel boom? “From any port on the North Shore, you could see upward of 600 schooners chasing huge shoals of mackerel,” according to a placard.

Or that: “The island’s modern fishing industry was founded on the tin can [because] without commercial-scale canning technology lobster never would have found its way from island waters, where it was despised, to markets in Great Britain and the United States, where it was cherished”?

Or that: Over the last three decades PEI mussel production jumped from 88,000 to 37.6 million pounds?

The museum features outdoor refreshment stands, a gift shop, and a boardwalk with views down to the wharf and beach.

On the wharf are replica fishermen’s storage shanties, and the original cannery building, which the museum claims as the possible birthplace of an old island culinary staple, “chicken haddie.”

On PEI young haddock were once called “chick,” explains a placard, and “in the 1940s the Eastern Fisheries Co., which ran the cannery, began marketing canned haddock, cod, and hake as ‘chicken haddie,’” a term soon embraced by other canneries across the province.

The Basin Head cannery houses crab pots, scallop gear, a two-wheel dump cart, the jawbone of a blue whale, plus an oyster boat and other craft — that Paquet had to “beg, borrow or steal” to collect.

Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@ aol.com.
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