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Atlantic Canada’s oyster and mussel harvesters satisfy a growing hunger, at home and beyond

From ice out in spring to the beginning of July, and again from August to late October, oysters are a big part of George and Marlene Dowdle’s life. The couple harvest and tend to their aquaculture leases on New London Bay, PEI, with the rising of the sun; he’s in his self-built 16-foot aluminum boat; she’s in her wooden 14-footer; both wield the long-handled tongs that are the hallmark of the oyster gatherer’s trade.

These are long days. It will be 10pm before they make it home for a night’s rest. Over a year they will send about 8,000 pecks of oysters weighing 15 pounds each to market—that’s more than 700,000 oysters.

Like others in the shellfish industry in Atlantic Canada, they keep at it to satisfy what appears to be an increasing and almost insatiable worldwide demand for their seafood. These are good times, a boom time, in the shellfish industry, but good times don’t come without long hours and hard work.

The shellfish people

Shellfish have long been a staple on the East Coast. Back before the Europeans came, the Mi’Kmaq waded the shallow waters of the estuaries of Atlantic Canada, where the salt of the ocean mixed with fresh water borne by rivers to the ocean’s edge.

They became known to the Jesuit missionaries as “the shellfish people,” so named for their gathering of mussels, clams and oysters found in profusion on the tidal flats—they were easy to collect, and could be eaten raw. The middens made by those ancient discarded shells can still be found on Prince Edward Island, as well as objects of more recent vintage: acres of bobbing buoys, bags and crates and other containers, part and parcel of modern aquaculture.

Atlantic Canada’s commercial oyster trade dates back to the early 19th century, and mussel farming began in earnest during the late 1970s after a couple of aborted attempts in Newfoundland and Labrador. But it’s in the past decade that things have really taken off.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), farmed mussel production in the region increased from 20,195 metric tonnes in 2002 to 27,631 metric tonnes in 2012. Their commercial value increased from just over $30 million to more than $43 million.

Oysters reflect a different pattern: though production has fallen slightly, revenues have more than doubled. A production total of 4,320 metric tonnes in 2002 slipped to 4,026 metric tonnes a decade later, but revenue almost doubled, from $7,976,000 to $13,280,000—indicating a serious price premium.

Kind to the environment

We are talking bivalves. There are more than 9,200 species of them extant on this planet, and they are found at every depth in every ocean of the world. They range in size from a tiny millimetre in diameter to the huge reef clams of the tropical seas.

They feed by drawing in water from their surroundings and extracting phytoplankton and other microscopic beings for nourishment; then spitting out the now cleansed water.

This is a resource-based industry that’s actually kind to the resource. Plus, there is no feed bill for farmers. Most mussels and a growing number of oysters offered for commercial consumption nowadays are raised by independent growers—like George and Marlene Dowdle.

A decent income…

George and Marlene have been at it for more than 30 years, farming 45 acres of oyster leases on the South West River on New London Bay. They started fishing for eels 14 years ago as well, to augment their income from oyster aquaculture.

George is hard pressed for a direct answer to a question about why a Toronto boy is raising oysters on PEI, but words like “freedom” and “a decent income if you work at it” come out; as well as stronger words about some of the threats he and other PEI shellfish farmers face.

“We damn near got wiped out from run-off from farm chemicals,” he says, identifying the cause as a practice called desiccation, whereby farmers spray a herbicide on potato fields to kill off potato plants when getting their crop ready for harvesting.

He also blames a $36,000 die-off of oysters on farm chemicals, despite lab testing that came back as inconclusive.

Chemical run-off aside, US seafood marketing prognosticator John Sackton is bullish about the future of oysters grown in the Atlantic Region.

“Oysters are currently one of the hottest seafood products on the market,” he says. “The growth of specialized oyster bars and the popularity of knowing the provenance of where your shellfish comes from have given a huge boost to the market… setting record price levels.”

Expanding product lines

At the other end of the PEI shellfish spectrum is Mussel King, in Morell, a major player in the industry founded by pioneer Russell Dockendorff, and now run by daughter Esther and son Scott. A few years back, they mortgaged every asset they owned to obtain repayable government loans of close to $6 million to modernize and expand the products the company sends to national and international markets.

Brother and sister had come to the conclusion that drastic changes were necessary if their business was to flourish in coming years. That meant expanding product lines—one-half-pound and one-pound frozen packs of mussels packed in a variety of sauces like butter garlic, chipotle, Thai curry, marinara and white wine; gourmet dining designed for busy consumers, easy to pick up and pop into the microwave.

Esther Dockendorff says their investment in their company has paid off—Mussel King has reached its planned five-year goal in half the time.

“I had a goal,” she says, “to create wealth, not low paying jobs. I wanted a plant that would operate with fewer people to whom we could pay better wages.

“We told our best employees that we had two kinds of jobs to offer—40-week jobs and 52-week jobs—but no more of the 14 weeks and EI variety.”

The results are obvious when you visit the production floor—apart from forklift drivers and lone employees tending computers, the space is taken up by huge, rattling stainless-steel computer generated machines.

Their customers have responded. The greatest current difficulty for Mussel King is to keep apace with an avalanche of orders, especially during weather conditions like those experienced this past winter, when blizzards suspended harvesting for days at a time.

Balancing demand and sustainability

DFO hovers over the aquaculture industry, sharing responsibilities with each province; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the federal Department of the Environment also play a part. The resulting tangle of regulations is often cited with some exasperation as a major hindrance to development of the industry.

However, DFO is charged with the responsibility for maintaining an ecological balance in the estuaries; to maintain sustainability by finding ways to determine the holding capacity of a body of water, before granting leases, for example. Demand for fish protein is expanding around the globe, and the agency tries to keep the industry from over-production.

It’s a question of balancing supply and demand, while maintaining sustainability.

Oyster seed and mussel spat are naturally produced—and because this aquaculture is environmentally friendly, it’s a good investment by governments ready to spend development funds.

My outdoor office

As with most things, there are challenges: primarily, four invasive tunicate species, marine animals that can decimate a mussel lease; MSX or Multinucleate Sphere X, a disease caused by a microscopic parasite that can wipe out a bed of oysters; and the warming of Atlantic region waters due to climate change.

Colton D’Eon is ready to accept those challenges. With studies in business behind him, he grows Ruisseau brand oysters with his father in Yarmouth County, NS, at their Eel Lake Oyster Farm, so named after the brackish tidal lake where they live.

Eel Lake is a tidal lake open to the ocean. Twice a day, salt water rushes in through an opening to mix with nutrients arriving from a freshwater brook to create an ideal environment for oysters.

Colton has put his future in oysters because, as he says, “I’ll spend a little time in the office, and then I’ll go outside on a beautiful day, and that’s really my office.”

His father, Nolan, was a lobster fisherman who came ashore in the mid-90s after he noticed oysters growing wild in the shallow waters of the lake. Now they have up to 700 wire cages floating there, growing oysters to a marketable three inches in two and a half years.

They sell everything they can produce to buyers in Canada, and are now considering expansion of their farm. For Colton D’Eon, “the future is positive… things look bright.”

“The thing is,” he says, “70 per cent of the world is water, the world population is doubling…. and that means we must farm the water to survive.”

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