Wild oyster harvesters are really wild now

Published on June 8, 2014

Island fishermen who tong for wild oysters could be seeing their livelihood go the way of the small family farm. The larger aquaculture operations that cultivate mussels, could soon take over their territory and their business.

That’s the fear.

A large group of these independent wild oyster harvesters, gathered on the weekend to express these fears to provincial and federal government representatives.

Their anxiety stems from a decision made by the P.E.I. Aquaculture Leasing Management Board back in February to allow 900 acres of Island mussel leases to be approved for multispecies use. So, if a company has a lease on which they can harvest one species, they can now apply to add another.

Among those other species – oysters.

The P.E.I. Shellfish Association, representing those wild oyster harvesters, claim that about 1,500 acres of mussel leases have been approved for possible oyster production since 2010, when a moratorium was quietly lifted.

But not much of this cultured or farmed oyster production has been happening yet.

Since the February decision by the Aquaculture Leasing Management Board, the wild oyster harvesters are hearing rumours that oyster farming on these multispecies leases is going to start gearing up in the near future. They say companies have been buying gear to grow oysters and have been applying for permits to catch spat (larval oysters.)

Wild oyster fishermen are afraid large-scale farming of the species will squeeze them out. Their fears are real - this decision poses a serious threat to this spring oyster fishery.

That's terrifying to someone who's been fishing oysters all their lives and depends on this as a main source of their household income.

The spring oyster fishing is tough enough this year. Harvesters on Mill River were hauling out lots of dead oysters. They’re blaming the high mortality on the cold winter, suggesting the river ice froze to the bottom and smothered many of the oysters.

The spring fishery does have representatives on the leasing management board that made the decision to approve the “add a species” leases, but they have only two representatives.

The Island’s mussel industry is huge business. Its players own leases that cover large swaths of the Island’s waterways. If they start cultivating oysters from these areas, the higher quality and more abundant product is likely to encroach on the markets of the small harvesters.

Why is this being allowed to happen?

Why can’t the wild oyster harvesters continue their small operations as they have for generations, while the mussel harvesters continue to harvest just mussels?