The equipment and means by which oysters are fished on Prince Edward Island has not changed substantially in the past hundred years. Fishermen still set out in small boats with tongs and crates the way that their fathers and grandfathers did. The big story in with the history of the harvest of the Malpeque Oyster is not how it has been done. The major and most complicated component of the harvest is the many enhancement projects that are always underway. It is the great lengths that are taken in order to ensure that the industry remains strong and prosperous that make the harvest of the Malpeque Oyster truly fascinating.

Although there have not been a great deal of change in the methods of harvesting oysters, there are a few differences between the early days of the industry and today.
At one time oysters could simply be picked from the bottom, by hand at low tide. Fishermen would wade in the shallows and pull the shellfish from the bottom and gather them in a small boat they pulled beside Read More

The equipment and means by which oysters are fished on Prince Edward Island has not changed substantially in the past hundred years. Fishermen still set out in small boats with tongs and crates the way that their fathers and grandfathers did. The big story in with the history of the harvest of the Malpeque Oyster is not how it has been done. The major and most complicated component of the harvest is the many enhancement projects that are always underway. It is the great lengths that are taken in order to ensure that the industry remains strong and prosperous that make the harvest of the Malpeque Oyster truly fascinating.

Although there have not been a great deal of change in the methods of harvesting oysters, there are a few differences between the early days of the industry and today.
At one time oysters could simply be picked from the bottom, by hand at low tide. Fishermen would wade in the shallows and pull the shellfish from the bottom and gather them in a small boat they pulled beside them. This practice is illegal today on public beds. Today in the modern, public-oyster fishery, the only legal way of fishing oysters is with the use of tongs.

The work involved in holding an oyster lease is much different and more in-depth than the work in the public fishery, so much so oyster men and women are often referred to as “oyster farmers” rather than fishermen. The term farmer much more accurately describes the work that is required to hold a successful lease in the oyster industry. Like in agriculture, oyster farming requires a “seed.” This seed is the larvae of the oyster that is released into the open water during the period between the early and late fishing seasons. Once the larvae settles on the bottom it is commonly known as “spat”. The larvae spends about three weeks floating in the plankton before it “sets” or attaches itself to a hard smooth surface at the bottom of the water.


© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Hundreds of oyster fishing boats on an Island waterway.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


Sediment rake used to ensure that the new oysters had a clean firm surface where they could attach.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


Oyster farmers must collect the spat and provide it with a place to attach to ensure that the stocks on their lease are always being replenished. Many of the practices in spat collection and oyster culture are the result of the work done by Dr. A.W.H Needler at the Ellerslie research station. He developed proven ways of collecting spat, and growing oysters to a size when they could be safely reintroduced to the oyster bed. Some of the spat collectors that were developed included the use of clean shells on the bottom of the areas where the spat was released as well as more portable versions which included wire bags, and various cardboard collectors that were coated in cement for the spat to attach to. The spat could then easily be removed by breaking the concrete away from the surface of the object. The PEI Shellfish Association recently found that some large tubing dipped in concrete makes for a cheap effective spat collector.

The oyster farmer has a great deal more freedom in the Read More

Oyster farmers must collect the spat and provide it with a place to attach to ensure that the stocks on their lease are always being replenished. Many of the practices in spat collection and oyster culture are the result of the work done by Dr. A.W.H Needler at the Ellerslie research station. He developed proven ways of collecting spat, and growing oysters to a size when they could be safely reintroduced to the oyster bed. Some of the spat collectors that were developed included the use of clean shells on the bottom of the areas where the spat was released as well as more portable versions which included wire bags, and various cardboard collectors that were coated in cement for the spat to attach to. The spat could then easily be removed by breaking the concrete away from the surface of the object. The PEI Shellfish Association recently found that some large tubing dipped in concrete makes for a cheap effective spat collector.

The oyster farmer has a great deal more freedom in the means used to harvest their cultured oysters compared to public fishermen. Since oyster tongs are best for harvesting small areas lease holders generally use mechanical drags to more effectively bring their oysters to the surface. The drags can also be used at much greater depths than the tongs of the public fishery. These large wire bag-like drags are pulled along the bottom until they are filled with oysters, at which time they are hoisted onto the boat and unloaded. The task of dragging oysters requires a great deal of skill or a farmer can do considerable damage to his holdings.


© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Sorting the debris and empty shells looking for the valuable oyster.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


Oysters brought up from the bottom

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


A video about oyster fishing on the North River

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.


Once the oysters are harvested, they are packaged and shipped. Oyster buyers operate processing plants where the shellfish are cleaned and packaged for sale. The product is very versatile since oysters can live out of water for nearly four months under the right conditions. The buyer ships the harvested product to markets throughout Canada, the United States and all over the world. The grade of the oyster dictates what sort of organization will buy the product. For example, commercial grade oysters which are odd shaped are often purchased for ingredients in stews and chowders. Standard grade oysters are not as long as commercial but still don’t have the desired round shell so they usually end up in the retail sector whereas the finest “choice” oysters find there way into the high scale food service industry.

The remarkable part of the story is not that the quality of PEI oysters is so good, or that they are sold all over the world. Or that fishermen a Read More

Once the oysters are harvested, they are packaged and shipped. Oyster buyers operate processing plants where the shellfish are cleaned and packaged for sale. The product is very versatile since oysters can live out of water for nearly four months under the right conditions. The buyer ships the harvested product to markets throughout Canada, the United States and all over the world. The grade of the oyster dictates what sort of organization will buy the product. For example, commercial grade oysters which are odd shaped are often purchased for ingredients in stews and chowders. Standard grade oysters are not as long as commercial but still don’t have the desired round shell so they usually end up in the retail sector whereas the finest “choice” oysters find there way into the high scale food service industry.

The remarkable part of the story is not that the quality of PEI oysters is so good, or that they are sold all over the world. Or that fishermen and oyster farmers are able to make a good living harvesting and selling the catch. The most remarkable part of the story is that after the industry was devastated by disease in the early 1900s and the vast majority of the oysters lost, a small number of oysters from Prince Edward Island were cultured by scientists and farmers to the extent that they could repopulate the stocks of the Maritimes. Truly a harvest that was made possible by resource management. The fishermen that were at one time doing the most damage to the stocks, were shown the way and helped he rebuild a product that is comparable to the finest in the world.


© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Cedar rings dipped in cement made excellent spat collectors.

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


Historically oyster fishermen used 4-peck boxes such as this one.

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


Weed rakes are used to control the amount of growth on oyster beds.

Barry King

© Barry King


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • describe how oysters are fished on Prince Edward Island;
  • explain how harvesting technics are different today.

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