When I packed my bags to research an article on Prince Edward Island last month, I had two things on my mind. 1) Anne of Green Gables (more on this soon), and 2) Oysters. Harvested from the deep, moody waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the island’s Malpeque variety has been famous for centuries—even Queen Victoria was a fan, importing barrels to England—prized for its delicate flavor and clean, sweet finish. Interestingly, the island’s oysters have also been fished in the same way for centuries—brought up by long-handled tongs that are powered by human strength alone. I was thrilled to learn more about the island’s native oyster from Phyllis Carr, who owns Carr’s Shellfish, a local seafood purveyor, with her husband, Robert. And the next day, on a bright, clear morning, I visited Carr’s oyster beds with fisherman Philip Buote—and attempted a bit oyster fishing myself.
On the Malpeque oyster:
Though the northwestern end of the island is called Malpeque, “all oysters found on PEI are considered the Malpeque variety,” says Phyllis. Oysters start out as spat, tiny shellfish about the size of a quarter that attach to a solid surface, like a larger oyster. “It’s illegal to bring in spat with mature oysters. They have to be completely cleaned off on the boat and put right back into the sea,” says Philip. It takes four to seven years for an oyster to reach maturity—that’s about three inches long. “Oysters like a hard bottom surface,” says Phyllis. “But the bigger they get, the more room they need to grow. The best oysters grow slowly, without crowding.” Malpeques are sold in three sizes: small choice, large choice, and extra-large choice.
On wild oyster fishery:
The island’s oysters are fished from the wild, using a 15-foot dory and a pair of long-handled oyster tongs that end in rake-like teeth. The fisherman leans over the side of the boat and drops the tongs into the water, closing them at the bottom of the bed to capture a small quantity oysters mixed with mud and seaweed. He then drags the closed tongs up through the water and deposits the cache on the prow of the boat. “Oyster tongs are the only legal way to fish oysters on public water in PEI,” says Phyllis. It’s “very labor intensive,” slow, and painstaking work—each load collects only a few oysters—requiring strength and agility. “A public fisherman spends eight, ten hours out on the water every day, dredging, sorting, dredging.” says Philip.
In case this is all hopelessly confusing, this video explains it better:
On oyster bed politics:
Prince Edward Island’s landscape is defined by the gulf—the water not only surrounds the land, it also reaches into it in narrow inlets and ponds, creating clean, cold pools that oysters love. Many of these areas are considered “public water,” says Phyllis, and fishing them “is strictly governed, requiring a fish-specific license,” which is limited, expensive, and hard to obtain. The island also has oyster beds—called “leases”—which are bodies of water rented from the federal government. Carr’s maintains five leases. They buy oysters from fisherman on the public water, and transfer the shellfish to their beds at Stanley Bridge, where they grow plump and clean.
On working the leases:
During the summer, Philip heads out in the dory once or twice a day to fish the leases, and turn over the beds. “In the warmer months, the leases need to be worked everyday to maintain them,” says Phyllis. Winter brings a dormant period. “We don’t work the leases then,” she says. “Everything freezes over from December to March,and when the water gets very cold, the oysters lock their shells and stay closed.”
On the best time to eat oysters:
Though enjoying shellfish only in months with an “r” is “kind of a myth,” says Phyllis, she thinks the “fattest, best quality oysters” are found in October, November, and December. “Oysters hibernate—like bears,” she says. “They fatten up during the warmer months, and hibernate during the winter.” In March and April, “they’re coming off their winter sleep so they’re getting thin and weak, waiting for the warm water to feed.” By autumn, they’re plump and delicious—just in time for the holiday season.
Just for fun, here’s what happened when I tried oyster fishing:
Did I catch anything?
Me and “my haul.” ;)
Back inside, Philip shucked two fresh oysters for me and I ate them right away, straight from the sea. They were briny and delicate, the ocean-temperature flesh sweeter and warmer than oysters served on a bed of ice. Fishing and eating them was one of the best moments of my life.
(Photos of me snapped by Philip Buote.)