PEI

Early freeze brings difficult challenge for P.E.I. oyster growers

Stormy weather and early freezing temperatures have made work difficult and dangerous for P.E.I. oyster growers, and they're worried about how it will affect the harvest in the spring.

Divers, equipment 'banged up' from ice

Ice has made it difficult for oyster growers to sink their cages properly. (Robbie Moore)

Stormy weather and early freezing temperatures have made work difficult and dangerous for P.E.I. oyster growers, and they're worried about how it will affect the harvest in the spring.

This time of year, oyster growers harvest and then sink their cages to the sea bottom for the winter. They usually have until December before the bays and rivers freeze, but not this year.

Shawn Cooke, the head of the Island Oyster Growers Group, said a lot of lines and cages have been damaged because they got frozen into the ice before they could be sunk.

"We're in to having to work in ice and stuff that we're not used to doing, breaking ice with barges and working in ice with divers and trying to sink gear," he said. "You heard stories of guys who spent days chopping out cages and sinking them through ice that you could walk on."

Divers hired to sink cages

Most growers hire contract divers to help sink the cages properly, so the oysters sit correctly on the sea bottom.

Diver Nick Coughlin said the ice made sinking the oyster cages a dangerous and daunting task.

"We're banged up, and you know, we had people getting hurt and pinned in the ice," he said. "You get hit in the face a lot. We have sore lips and noses…. We're really lucky to get as much done as we did."

Diver Nick Coughlin points to the damage on his wet suit from trying to sink oyster cages around the ice this month. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Oyster farmer Robbie Moore said Covehead Bay had frozen before he could get his 400 bags filled with about two million seed oysters secured at the bottom the bay. He expects that killed at least half of them.

It's going to be hard when three years down the road, when all of a sudden your earnings are down 50 per cent.— Robbie Moore

"It's going to be hard when three years down the road, when all of a sudden your earnings are down 50 per cent. You've just taken a 50 per cent pay cut."

Coughlin and his dozen workers have put in long hours to stop that from happening. He said competing growers have all been working together to sink each others' cages and minimize damage and oyster loss.

"They came together like nothing I've ever seen. They inspired me and my divers, in a time when we probably normally wouldn't have had the courage to go on."

Some oyster equipment got frozen in the ice. (Robbie Moore)

But Coughlin said he and a lot of growers are still worried about just how many cages are actually sitting correctly at the bottom.

"There were cages froze in, where we couldn't follow our technique. And for every cage that goes down wrong, there's the potential of substantial loss to the farmer."

Oyster grower Robbie Moore works on one of his oyster cages. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Coughlin said all oyster growers can do at this point is wait until the spring, when their cages come back up and reveal just how much Mother Nature ate into their bottom line.

"We did the best job we could under the circumstances we had," he said. "I believe there will be damage in the spring. I'm not sure what it is, or what it will equate to. It could be substantial."

More P.E.I. news

With files from Steve Bruce and Laura Chapin

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