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Born to be wild?

By Jeff C. Clements, PhD

Oyster growers and fishers from Prince Edward Island have given the market a world-renowned product. Oysters have been a part of P.E.I.’s seafood industry longer than Canada has been a country. So, it’s no surprise that the island knows what it’s doing. But it’s taken both dedication and innovation to secure this worldwide reputation.

A tale of two methods

In the early days, fishers were granted licences to collect wild oysters from beds on the bottom of nearshore P.E.I. waters. This was the only way to fish oysters for more than a century. But then ‘off-bottom’ production methods took off in the 1990s.

These off-bottom methods of growing oysters involve:

  • making it easier to clean the oysters and gear, and
  • giving oysters easy access to food in the water, which lets them grow faster
Adult oysters. Photo courtesy of Jeff Clements.

Adult oysters. Photo courtesy of Jeff Clements.

P.E.I.’s continued success in the oyster industry relies on both wild oyster collection and off-bottom growing. Both methods rely on natural oyster ‘seed’ for their production. Seed are baby oysters, also known as larvae.

Sharing resources

For wild beds, larvae sink to the bottom and attach themselves to hard surfaces such as existing oyster shells, where they will remain for the rest of their lives. This contributes to the production and success of wild beds.

For off-bottom culture methods, oyster growers put artificial collectors in the water for baby oysters to cement, or attach, to. These collectors are made of plastic and are coated in concrete to provide additional hard surfaces for oysters to attach to.

Oyster larvae. Photo courtesy of Mike Randall.

Oyster larvae. Photo courtesy of Mike Randall.

But there are only so many babies to go around. Don’t the artificial collectors ruin the success of the wild oyster beds? That’s what we wanted to know!

Research on the river

Getting the answer takes a collaborative effort from our researchers at the Atlantic Science Enterprise Centre and the:

  • Province of P.E.I.
  • University of P.E.I.
  • Université de Moncton
  • Lennox Island First Nation

We’re currently conducting an experiment at the Bideford River Marine Centre in Ellerslie, P.E.I., using a large tank in a laboratory. We want to see how many oyster larvae attach themselves to oyster shells on the bottom of the tank. We’re measuring the larvae amount when artificial collectors are present versus when they are absent.

The Bidford River Marine Centre in Ellerslie, PEI. Photos courtesy of Mike Randall.

The Bidford River Marine Centre in Ellerslie, PEI. Photos courtesy of Mike Randall.

If the number of larvae is the same whether artificial collectors are present or not, we’ll know that they likely don’t affect wild beds.

But if the number of larvae in the wild beds is lower when artificial collectors are present, then we’ll need to do more research. The next question becomes whether the results that we see in the lab are transferrable to nature; so scaling our experiment up to natural oyster habitats in the wild will be the next step. Ultimately, the results of our experiments will be incorporated into a broad “ecosystem model” (computer simulation) to understand and predict the interactions between wild beds and artificial collectors.

Stay tuned for our results! Watch this space for the next episode in the P.E.I. oyster saga.

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