In June I visited one of the many oyster farms that fill the bays and river mouths of Prince Edward Island. As most of my first-hand oystering experience occurs among the South's wild-harvested marsh, the physical presence of oyster aquaculture in the river wowed. What's most striking are the sheer number of operations. As we navigated the quarter-mile-wide Foxley River, a tidal channel that drains into Cascumpec Bay and then into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, oyster farms occupied more space than the navigable strait. Rows of floating cages, marked by black buoys, numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. Grouped together like pews, they bobbed perpendicular to the tide flow. Underneath, racks of oysters, some half-inch young, others three-inches long and ready for market.
My guide this day was Marty O'Brien, co-proprietor of Cascumpec Bay Oyster Company along with his father. Marty planned on a career in golf, a major industry on the island, but turned to oysters when he realized that golf was a dead-end. Luckily, he knew the water. His father was a lobster fisherman.
We sped by aquaculture lease after aquaculture lease, the June rain cold and cutting. Just a few miles upriver, we passed a handful of oyster brands, none of them related to the O'Brien business. There's been a rush to grab leases, Marty told me, so harsh that there's been a moratorium. But he didn't expect all the new bivalve businesses to last. Some folks have seen oysters as a get rich quick scheme, Marty said, but they don't realize the amount of labor involved. It's easier to get by oystering as part-time income. The smart guys, he said, oystered as a hobby, as retirement money.
But Marty, it became clear, approached oystering as a craft and career, despite those warnings. He's a full-time oysterman. He's young, not yet 30, engaged to be married, and obsessed with business building. So far, there's been success. His oysters are served in Toronto and Montreal, where they are loved. Marty bought a processing plant last year, which allowed him to grow in production. And this summer, Cascumpec Bay Oyster Company was a finalist for a national young entrepreneur award. (He didn't win.)
As I drove along the Prince Edward Island coast, oyster and mussel farms presented themselves seemingly wherever the water was deep enough. Oyster farms are hard to miss; cross a river in any part of the island, and multi-colored floats flank the bridge, shellfish growing big below.
I wondered if, given the proliferation of oyster farms in PEI, and, more recently, Nova Scotia, as well as the U.S., the market felt overrun. Far from it, Marty said. He still can't meet demand. To further grow business, Marty has invested in a floating office, a workspace bobbing in the waves where he can sort and grade oysters, which he keeps in the water until he's exactly ready to ship to customers, without taking the stock onto dry land. It saves him plenty of labor.
Above, Marty taped a hook onto a hockey stick, a typical Maritimer hack, for hauling oyster racks onto his boat.
Tools used to size oysters during grading.
Marty's oysters, I was surprised to find out, don't begin their life in a hatchery. Most farms, he said, are fed by wild spat collection alone. There's no breeding, unlike the Northeast, West Coast, or Chesapeake. Fresh from the river, the oysters tasted ice cold, a stiff brine like a firm handshake, and buttery, with meat the gave easily under molars. Drafting this post, I'm wishing Cascumpecs were available down South.