The Oysters of PEI’s Malpeque Bay

Prince Edward Island’s Malpeque Bay is one of the last remaining areas in the world where oysters continue to be harvested from wild beds by oyster gatherers, who are still called fishermen instead of farmers. Utilizing a long-standing technique that developed over a hundred years ago involving a small boat called a dory and giant wooden pincers called tongs, these oysters and the industry around them have survived great adversity to become some of the most popular in the world. If you’re looking to visit Prince Edward Island, make sure Malpeque Bay is on your itinerary.

A History of Use, Foresight and Regulation

The oysters that live in Malpeque Bay have been important to the people of Prince Edward Island for thousands of years. From Mi’kmaq tribes and British settlers in need of food to the expansion of transportation that eventually transformed oyster fishing throughout the world into a multi-million dollar industry, the oysters of Malpeque have always been vital to the many different kinds of people who have made their homes there.

In 1904, stock depletion due to over-fishing led the Canadian government to start a comprehensive study of its oysters and the fishing practices employed on both coasts. The research, which went from 1904 until 1913, is still a foundational part of modern oyster farming, and it continues to provide the means to protect oysters and the industry that surrounds them. Licenses, boat registration, rules for harvesting young oysters, outlawing ice fishing, mussel mud restrictions and controlling the types of tools that can be used — all this and more has ensured that the Malpeque Bay oyster can survive the intense amount of money and human interest that surrounds it.

Disease and Near-Disaster

In 1915, a disease nearly wiped Prince Edward Island’s oysters. Discovered in beds just south of Curtain Island, it was dubbed the Malpeque Oyster Disease because it was first discovered in that bay. Believed to have originated with a shipment of United State oysters, the disease killed more than 90 percent of the bay’s oysters before they reached their third year. By the end of 1915, the industry was nearly wiped out, but a tiny percentage of oysters seemed to be resistant to the disease. This handful of oysters lived on and reproduced oysters that were also disease-resistant. It took almost a decade, but eventually, the stock looked to be recovering. In 1929, the government set up a research station on one of the Malpeque Bay’s tributaries to study a means of farming and fishing that would not only speed up the recovery process but also help to ensure future safeguards.

Neither the cure nor the cause of the disease was ever discovered, but insight gained from the research work has improved the oyster industry, nonetheless. From collecting spat (young oysters) to restock dwindling populations to learning better methods of protecting young oysters from predators in order to help them safely mature, the industry was transformed. And in 1955, when the Malpeque Disease resurfaced and began to devastate New Brunswick oyster beds, copious amounts of Malpeque Bay oysters — already resistant to the disease from the 1915 scare — were sent to the mainland to replenish the oyster stock there.

The Technique Is in the Tongs

Professional fisherman on Malpeque Bay harvest oysters from 15-foot dories. The water is so clear, that through ten fee of water you can look straight down into nothing but piles of oysters. Fourteen-foot wooden tongs are used to fish a handful of oysters up out of the water at a time. No dredges are ever used, and no hand-collecting is done, either. Malpeque oysters are taken out of wild beds with giant wooden tongs. It’s been that way for over a hundred years, and it’s illegal to harvest them in any other way.

The Future

Guaranteeing the future of the oyster fishery on Malpeque Bay is a task that requires ongoing effort, research, money and attention. Thankfully, everyone involved in the industry — fisherman, government leaders and researchers alike — are heavily invested in conservation and stock enhancement. 10 million oysters are fished from that bay and sent around the world every year. Regardless of the threats and challenges that will come in the future, the past indicates that the Malpeque Bay oyster and the people who fish it will continue to survive and thrive.

About the Author: Jacob Coogan is a contributing writer and wildlife enthusiast, who works within the United States National Parks system. He studies at-risk bat populations and has two pet iguanas.

2 Comments

  • John

    October 24, 2013

    Fantastic piece! PEI is one of the most beautiful places, and it is nice to see that some of the old industries are not only surviving, but thriving.

  • Abby

    November 6, 2013

    I have heard about PEI from a friend and according to her that this is such a beautiful place. I would also love to visit that place soon.

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