Winter mussel harvest helps young industry continue to flourish and grow on P.E.I.

Colin MacLean
Published on March 31, 2014

Ice harvesting is an uniquely P.E.I. experience. The colloquial term refers to the harvesting of mussels in the dead of winter; a time when all other forms of traditional fishing are months away from getting back on the water.

It's a process that has been around for decades and has contributed greatly to the growth of P.E.I.'s mussel industry into one of the most recognized in the world and an industry that contributes more than $11 million annually into the local economy.

But it's not for the faint of heart.

Stephen Stewart, president of Stewart Mussel Farms and Confederation Cove Mussels, has been in the industry for almost 30 years, and if something can go wrong during the harvest, he's seen it happen.

But he believes strongly in the potential of the industry, and he couldn't imagine doing anything else.

"After 28 years, I still love it," he said.

The process

Last Tuesday, Stewart allowed the Journal Pioneer to tag along with one of his harvesting crews as they worked in New London Bay.

Hauling six sleds loaded with empty containers behind his half-ton-truck, Stewart drove his visitors three kilometres out onto the frozen sea ice of the bay to where his crew was busy hauling in hundreds of socks filled with mature mussels.

As he drove, Stewart remarked that he and other mussel producers never know exactly when they'll be able get out onto the ice. But he says he's been in the business long enough he can recognize the proper conditions by eying a cross section of bay ice.

Once conditions are good the crews will use GPS tags to find their buoys, which are frozen under the sea ice.

Using hand-held or mounted chainsaws to cut a trench through the ice, they will find the line holding the mussel socks in place and haul it up to the surface.

Using a winch system, the line is drawn out from under the ice where each sock is cut down and thrown onto a small conveyor belt that loads it into the waiting containers. A steady stream of trucks ferry the product back to shore.

As the old line full of mussel socks is harvested by one crew another group feeds a new line under the ice. The new line will be tied with the next generation of mussels this fall.

It takes between 16 and 24 months for mussels to grow to market size. The batch Stewart was hauling in that day was put in the water in the fall of 2012.

His operation sells fresh and frozen mussels to markets all over North America.

The advantage

The ability to harvest new product all year is invaluable, said Stewart. It's also economical.

"Personally, and I think my guys would agree . . . it's almost easier to harvest in the ice than it is by boat.

"If you weigh in the cost of fuel and the labour from the sailing time, for me it's a lot better," he said.

Donnie Arsenault has been working with Stewart for 22 years and is now a lead hand on the harvesting crew.

His guys can harvest nearly double the amount of mussel socks while working on ice than they can from a boat, said Arsenault.

The challenges

Some of the biggest challenges ice harvesters face include, the weather, a lack of labour and the ice itself.

Crews only go out on the ice when it's safe to do so, but the difference between weather on shore and out in the middle of the bay can be quiet significant.

It can definitely be unpleasant out there, he said. And the ice is just always a concern, he added, anybody who works out of holes cut into the middle of a frozen bay is going to get nervous every once in a while.

And then there's trying to find labour, which is sometimes his biggest headache.

"It's not for everybody. It's hard labour and long days. We met at the shop yesterday morning at 6 a.m. and I left the shop at 7 p.m.," he said

"We've got 13 guys here and that's pretty much what we've got for crew. As soon as the boats hit the water, I'm going to need another 17 or 18 that I have to try and find. And it's not easy.

"I've had them come, look at the boat and say 'that's not for me."

Big picture

Ann Worth, executive director of the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance, said that while mussel harvesting is still a relatively new industry (less than 40 years), it has grown into one of the most important on the Island.

"We really are the gold standard. When people are looking for quality mussels for restaurants, grocery stores and so on, they think of us.

"And that's because we have farmers who are very committed to quality practices.

"So I think years of experience in growing mussels has brought us to that place," said Worth. @JournalPMacLean