The history of the oyster industry on Prince Edward Island is a fascinating story of overcoming adversity and using disaster as a springboard to a prosperous and reliable future. The lengths to which the people who are involved and have been involved in the industry will go to ensure the success of the industry is very impressive. Although the early years of the industry were defined by hard times and uncertainty due to the poor management of the resource, the period from 1915 on would be one of discovery, advancement and cooperation.

When the Malpeque Oyster Disease hit PEI in the early decades of the 1900s it was thought by many to be the final blow to an already damaged industry but this would not be the case. The scientific work that took place by Dr. Needler at the Ellerslie experimental station on the Biddeford River would form the foundation for modern oyster farming on Prince Edward Island. Even though the cause of the disease was never found, the enhancement strategies tha Read More

The history of the oyster industry on Prince Edward Island is a fascinating story of overcoming adversity and using disaster as a springboard to a prosperous and reliable future. The lengths to which the people who are involved and have been involved in the industry will go to ensure the success of the industry is very impressive. Although the early years of the industry were defined by hard times and uncertainty due to the poor management of the resource, the period from 1915 on would be one of discovery, advancement and cooperation.

When the Malpeque Oyster Disease hit PEI in the early decades of the 1900s it was thought by many to be the final blow to an already damaged industry but this would not be the case. The scientific work that took place by Dr. Needler at the Ellerslie experimental station on the Biddeford River would form the foundation for modern oyster farming on Prince Edward Island. Even though the cause of the disease was never found, the enhancement strategies that were developed made a brighter future for the industry possible. The tactics that were used to promote the reproduction of those oysters that were immune to the disease would become the foundation for the modern industry and allow the Malpeque oyster to replenish the devastated oyster stocks throughout the whole Atlantic region.


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

The first day of the 2004 oyster season in Bedeque Bay, PEI.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

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


The history of the Malpeque Oyster is as long and eventful as the history of the Island itself. It has crossed the cultures of almost all the residents of the province going back thousands of years to the time when they provided a food supply for the Mi’kmaq that called Malpeque, PEI their summer home. The oyster has left a substantial mark on the province’s history, going through subtle changes as the province and country went through many transitions on a different but parallel level. The fishery had an effect on the British, the Acadian and many other groups of settlers. As the country moved towards Confederation, the fishery moved towards organization and regulation. As railroads were constructed so too were the markets for the oyster fishermen and when Canada and the world were on the brink of war the oyster fishermen of Malpeque Bay were battling over fishing. As time went on, the Oyster fishery developed into the multi-million dollar industry that it is today.

In 1904, due to the stock depletion from over f Read More

The history of the Malpeque Oyster is as long and eventful as the history of the Island itself. It has crossed the cultures of almost all the residents of the province going back thousands of years to the time when they provided a food supply for the Mi’kmaq that called Malpeque, PEI their summer home. The oyster has left a substantial mark on the province’s history, going through subtle changes as the province and country went through many transitions on a different but parallel level. The fishery had an effect on the British, the Acadian and many other groups of settlers. As the country moved towards Confederation, the fishery moved towards organization and regulation. As railroads were constructed so too were the markets for the oyster fishermen and when Canada and the world were on the brink of war the oyster fishermen of Malpeque Bay were battling over fishing. As time went on, the Oyster fishery developed into the multi-million dollar industry that it is today.

In 1904, due to the stock depletion from over fishing, the Canadian Government asked Dr. Joseph Stafford, of the Biological Board of Canada, to do a comprehensive study of oysters on the east and west coasts of the country. Some of the research that would take place under Dr. Stafford between 1904 and 1913 would become the foundation for modern oyster farming. From these studies, and the work of other oystermen such as Captain Ernest Kemp of England, new regulations would be put in place to help protect and enhance the oyster industry on Prince Edward Island. The new regulations would be added to the ones that were put into action in 1893. These new regulations would include the respect of licenses, registration of boats, controlling the harvest of young oysters, outlawing fishing oysters through the ice and placing restrictions on digging mussel mud and detailing what was an acceptable set of harvest tools.


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

Tonging for oysters circa 1950.

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


Grading fresh oysters.

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


In 1915 disaster struck the oyster industry in PEI with the discovery of the Malpeque Oyster disease on oyster beds just south of Curtain Island in Malpeque Bay. It received its name because that was where it was first identified. The disease is believed to have come from the United States in one of the shipments of oysters in 1913 or 1914. The disease decimated the oyster industry, killing upwards of 90% of the population before they reached their third year. By the end of 1915, the oyster industry in Malpeque Bay was all but destroyed. The only glimmer of hope lied in the small percentage of the oyster stocks that appeared to be resistant to the disease. These few oysters continued to live and reproduce young oysters that were also resistant to the disease. By 1922 the oyster stocks showed some slow recovery. It is these oysters, with initiatives from within the government and industry, that would be the foundation of the oyster industry in the Atlantic region in the years to come.

In the earlier days o Read More

In 1915 disaster struck the oyster industry in PEI with the discovery of the Malpeque Oyster disease on oyster beds just south of Curtain Island in Malpeque Bay. It received its name because that was where it was first identified. The disease is believed to have come from the United States in one of the shipments of oysters in 1913 or 1914. The disease decimated the oyster industry, killing upwards of 90% of the population before they reached their third year. By the end of 1915, the oyster industry in Malpeque Bay was all but destroyed. The only glimmer of hope lied in the small percentage of the oyster stocks that appeared to be resistant to the disease. These few oysters continued to live and reproduce young oysters that were also resistant to the disease. By 1922 the oyster stocks showed some slow recovery. It is these oysters, with initiatives from within the government and industry, that would be the foundation of the oyster industry in the Atlantic region in the years to come.

In the earlier days of the industry there was a great deal of debate and dispute over whether it was the province or the Dominion that had the jurisdiction over the industry. For example, many provincial officials did not even recognize the leases that were granted by the Dominion. After both sides came to the agreement that jurisdiction over fisheries be transferred back to the federal level, actions began to take place to help with the slow recovery of the oyster stocks and industry on PEI. In 1929 the Fisheries Research Board appointed Dr. A.W.H Needler to study the oyster and develop a scientific means of farming them in order to speed the recovery process of the Malpeque Oyster. With federal dollars, Dr. Needler set up a research station on one of the tributaries of Malpeque Bay, the Bideford River.


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

Men sorting oysters

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


Barrels used to float the oyster spat collectors

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


Although Dr. Needler never found the cure or even the cause of the Malpeque Disease, the work that he and his associate H.P. Sherwood did at the Ellerslie Biological Shellfish Research Station would form the framework of scientific oyster farming and provide a great deal of knowledge and insight that is still being used to this day in the shellfish industry on Prince Edward Island. Inroads were made to the collection of spat (young oysters) that could be used to restock the population. There was also tremendous success in protecting the young from predators as they matured to a marketable age. These innovations revolutionized the industry and turned it into a manageable resource. [This will be discussed in detail in the harvest section of the site.]

The Malpeque Oyster became more important then ever when in 1955 New Brunswick was devastated by the Malpeque disease. Massive amounts of Island oysters, which were resistant to the disease were sent to the Mainland to aid in the replen Read More

Although Dr. Needler never found the cure or even the cause of the Malpeque Disease, the work that he and his associate H.P. Sherwood did at the Ellerslie Biological Shellfish Research Station would form the framework of scientific oyster farming and provide a great deal of knowledge and insight that is still being used to this day in the shellfish industry on Prince Edward Island. Inroads were made to the collection of spat (young oysters) that could be used to restock the population. There was also tremendous success in protecting the young from predators as they matured to a marketable age. These innovations revolutionized the industry and turned it into a manageable resource. [This will be discussed in detail in the harvest section of the site.]

The Malpeque Oyster became more important then ever when in 1955 New Brunswick was devastated by the Malpeque disease. Massive amounts of Island oysters, which were resistant to the disease were sent to the Mainland to aid in the replenishing of their stocks.

Today, the techniques and principles that were established by Dr. Needler and the Research Station are still being practised by the Prince Edward Island Shellfish Association. Dedicated individuals still undertake many enhancement projects to ensure the prosperity and survival of the oyster fishery on Prince Edward Island. The industry is thriving and each year hundreds of fishermen take to the bays and rivers to rake in oysters. The largest difference between the early days of the industry and modern fishing is that the fishermen themselves play a large role in the enhancement and conservation of stocks. The industry that was deemed fruitless more than once is still alive and well on Prince Edward Island, in fact in 2000 there were 6,022,000 pounds of oysters harvested in the province valued at almost $6.5 million.


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

Bags of shells used for spat collection.

PEI Shellfish Museum

© PEI Shellfish Museum


Investigating the oyster quality.

PEI Department of Environment & Fisheries.

© PEI Department of Environment & Fisheries.


Video about the outlook on the Oyster Fishery

In the past 20 years, we’ve grown into a very active public fishery. Shell mining and spreading and shore relays, spat collection, cultivation, these projects are all helping to ensure a good public fishery now and in the future.

Community Museums Association of Prince Edward Island.

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


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • outline the main events the happen in the Malpeque Oyster industry;
  • explain what was Dr. Needler’s contribution to the Malpeque Oyster industry.

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