Unknowns face industry as the spring oyster season ends

The 2020 spring oyster season has been a season of ups and downs, though mainly downs, with roughly one third of fishers opting to not go out. Some didn't go out because they didn't have a buyer, or because the price being offered wasn't good, or because oysters weren't very plentiful. Jillian Trainor photo

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The 2020 spring oyster season has been a season of ups and downs, though mainly downs.

“There was probably 80-100 fishermen that didn’t fish because they didn’t have a buyer,” said Bob MacLeod, president of the PEI Shellfish Association. “There were other fishermen that didn’t fish because the price being offered wasn’t very good, and there were people that didn’t fish because the grade was horrible and the oysters weren’t very plentiful.”

Last year there were 340 active fishers for the spring season. If those numbers stayed the same this year, it would mean roughly 1/3 of spring fishers didn’t go out on the water this year.

Adding to this was Area D, an oyster and quahog fishing on the Hillsborough River near Stratford, was closed for periods of time over the course of the spring season. Mr MacLeod said this had a big impact on both the oyster and quahog industries this season. Because the area was closed, people had to fish in other areas, causing those areas to be over fished as a result. He said it really hurt the people that were really trying to make a living because they couldn’t go where they wanted or try new ground because it was a big area that closed.

For fishers and processors alike, one of the biggest issues was the fact that restaurants both in the province and throughout the country were closed for several months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re pretty dependant on restaurants, like seafood in general tends to be predominantly consumed in restaurants, and oysters especially,” said Martin O’Brien of Cascumpec Bay Oyster Company Ltd. “I think pretty well everybody was down significantly. There was still some retail operations taking oysters. One of my biggest customers is a fish market, and they kept buying oysters all the way through, and quite a few oysters, actually.”

Mr O’Brien said things for the oyster company, which cultivates along with processing them, didn’t really change much this season, and fishers put out the same amount of seed they normally do. Because there were no plans to expand this year, they didn’t have to can anything, and just kept things running as they normally do.

One thing Cascumpec Bay Oyster Company has been working on has been diversifying markets, trying to find more sales.

“It doesn’t really happen overnight, but it’s been a work in progress, and it is promising with some of the new export markets, and that sort of thing,” said Mr O’Brien. “I think in the long run, the business will expand, our sales will expand by a lot, but we’re just going to have to be patient until then. It’s a global issue, so even the buyers, they’re still a little timid to take on brand new suppliers and that sort of thing.”

Some processors did better than expected for the most part.

“I thought it wouldn’t be any good, but it’s pretty good,” said Leslie Hardy, of Leslie Hardy & Sons Ltd, based in Ellerslie. “We buy a few besides our own cultivated, and we sold a lot of our own this spring. We sold four times as many this spring as we did last spring as far as the farm raised ones, so that’s something.”

Mr Hardy said it’s quite a risk being in the oyster processing industry, but added that it’s a pleasure to be able to help people out and it’s a pleasure to be able to buy their oysters so they can feed their family.

Right now, it’s hard to say how all of this is going to impact the fall season.

“Even with the ones that did fish that there wasn’t a big pile of oysters, hopefully it didn’t cause a problem,” concluded Mr MacLeod. “The markets are weak, hopefully it didn’t cause a glut that by this fall everybody will be ready to buy and hopefully the oysters will be more plentiful, and everybody will get a chance to hopefully make up some ground. There are a lot of hopefully’s there, but we don’t know what we’re facing. There are too many unknowns.”

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