The Original Wild Oyster
Harvested from the cool clean waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the PEI Malpeque oyster became famous at a Paris exhibition in 1900 when the saltwater mollusk was declared the world’s tastiest oyster. The legend has only grown, as has the industry.
In PEI, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) manages and regulates oyster harvesting. A rather complicated set of regulations governs the oyster fishing seasons. Seasons differ for commercial and leased ground. For the commercial fishery, the spring season is May 1 to July 15 and the fall fishery is September 15 to November 30. The majority of oyster fishers hold both spring and fall licenses.
The oysters are fished from the wild beds, using a 15-foot dory and a pair of long-handled oyster tongs that end in rake-like teeth. The depths of the water are up to 4.3 meters (14 feet). The fisher will lean over the side of the dory and drop the tongs into the water, closing them on the bottom of the bed to capture a small quantity of oysters and usually a bit of seagrass and mud. The fisher will then pull the closed tongs up through the water and deposit what they have gathered on the washboard of the dory so it can be measured and graded. All undersized oysters go back on the beds, as well as old shells that help to make a new environment for wild oysters to grow. Keeper oysters are cleaned off and sorted into wooden crates that will be sold to oyster processors and then the consumer. The oyster tongs are the only legal way for fishers to harvest wild oysters on commercial beds. The process is very labour intensive and slow. Each load may only collect a few oysters, requiring strength for repetition and a lot of patience. A wild oyster fisher will spend 8-10 hours out on the water everyday tonging and sorting.
The oyster which is native to the North American Atlantic coast is commonly known as the Atlantic oyster, American oyster or Eastern oyster (Crassotrea virginica). In Prince Edward Island, this species has become synonymous with Malpeque Bay, well known for its production of the world famous Malpeque oyster. PEI is near the most northerly tip of the oyster’s range. PEI’s warm, shallow, food rich bays and estuaries provide excellent growing conditions for oysters.
Oysters of the same species can have very different qualities due to local variation and the influence of the environment in which they grow. For example: water quality, minerals, salinity and type of nutrients available in the water all affect the taste profile. This is why PEI oysters (Malpeque brand or others) are known for superior flavour and quality.
PEI oysters grow slowly compared to many other foods. It takes 4 to 7 years for an oyster to mature and reach a minimum fishing size of 3 inches. Oysters like a hard bottom surface to grow on, the bigger they get, the more room they require to grow. It is said that the best oysters are the ones that get to grow slowly without crowding in cool clean waters.
Wild oysters are graded either choice, standard or commercial. This depends on the length and width of the shell. Although we grade the oyster by the shell, all meats taste the same.
Au Natural Growth Cycle
Oysters spawn naturally each Spring. The oyster larvae will begin to form a shell after 24 hours and within a few weeks the oyster spat will find a suitable surface to attach to in the wild and start to grow.
Oysters are filter feeders and get their nourishment from plants like plankton that are naturally found in the waters. They cannot tolerate or grow in impure waters, therefore, our abundance of oysters is directly related to our cool clean waters and desirable growing environment.
Because they are filter feeders, oysters naturally clean the waters where they grow and help reduce greenhouse gases by removing carbon dioxide from the ocean for shell formation. Oysters are a win-win for everyone!
Sustainability and Environment
The oyster industry is steeped in tradition and pride, with the wild fishery dating back as far as the 1600’s. With a focus on sustainability, fishers are licensed and regulated. Minimum size restrictions apply to oysters. Undersized ones are returned to the ocean. The wild fishery adheres to a multi-year integrated management plan and annual harvest plans. The number of licensed harvesters is limited and regulations oversee the size of tongs, designated harvesting areas and seasons.
The wild oyster fishery has low impact on the environment. Fishers use tong and dory to harvest oysters from the bottom, once they leave a location, there is no waste or remaining impact on the location.
The Oyster Connoisseur
Oysters are a food experience not to miss. One French poet compared them to “kissing the sea on the lips” as they literally taste like the sea and reflect the minerals, salinity and nutrients available in the water.
Wild oysters are all of these things: They have a clean taste that reflects their environment, they are naturally grown and fished with minimal impact and of course they are delicious!
Oysters are natural and nutritious and are sometimes called nature’s multivitamin. Oysters are an excellent source of protein, low in calories and saturated fat, excellent source of iron, high in zinc, great sources of vitamin E, vitamin D, B12, magnesium, etc.
Oysters are a food product that can be enjoyed by all ages. They are affordable and versatile. They can be served raw on the half shell or can be baked or fried. Some great oyster recipes like oyster Rockefeller or oyster po’ boy sandwich can be found on this website at the following link: PEI seafood recipes
Ask for Wild Oysters
Love what you read about these dedicated oyster fishers and the wild oyster? Asks your food retailer or restaurant if they carry wild PEI oysters. The following oyster companies sell wild oysters through wholesale and/or direct to consumer:
PEI Oyster Processors:
- Burleigh Brothers Seafood Ltd.
- Brackley Bay Oyster Co.
- Five Star Shellfish Inc.
- Future Seafoods Inc.
- Howard’s Cove Shellfish Ltd.
- Leslie Hardy & Sons Ltd.
- Prince Edward Aqua Farms Inc.
PEI Oyster Retailers:
- Arsenault’s Fish Mart
- Basin View Seafoods
- Brackley Bay Oyster Co.
- By the Bay Fish Mart
- Doiron Fisheries
- JMK Fish Mart
- MacKinnon’s Lobster Pound
- Mike’s Queen Street Meat Market
- Prince Edward Aqua Farms
- Water Prince Corner Shop