© Guardian file photo
Martin MacDonald of the P.E.I. Cultured Mussel Growers Association speaking to the provincial fisheries committee, joined by Shawn Cooke, center, of the Island Oyster Growers Group and Ann Worth, executive director of the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance. They presented their side of the debate over converting mussel leases into oyster licences.
Prince Edward Island’s two most iconic shellfish industries are clashing over fishing rights in P.E.I.’s Malpeque Bay.
Wild oyster fishers are raising concern over the fact some mussel growers have been converting their fishing licences in order to grow cultured oysters.
Wild oyster fishers, known as public oyster fishers, say this is an intrusion on their fishery and are worried it could push their 700-plus fishermen out of business.
“It’s just one industry coming into another industry with the potential of taking it over,” Stan Casey, a director with the P.E.I. Shellfish Association, told the provincial fisheries committee during a recent meeting.
But on Thursday, representatives of the P.E.I. Cultured Mussel Growers Association and the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance presented their side of the story — arguing mussel farmers are not trying to take over the public oyster industry.
“They are two very different businesses, the vast majority of mussel growers are core mussel growers who are experts in this particular area,” said Martin MacDonald, director of the P.E.I. Cultured Mussel Growers Association
But he acknowledged some mussel farmers are interested in switching over, and this is what has caused a flurry of concern.
The issue revolves around an “add a species” clause included in P.E.I. cultured mussel growers’ fishing licences. This gives them the ability to fish other shellfish species’ in addition to mussels for a nominal $200 fee.
Since February of this year, the P.E.I. Aquaculture Leasing Board approved over 900 new acres of fishing area for mussel growers to convert to oysters.
That’s a big jump from the 600 total acres approved over the last four years.
The public oyster fishers say this sharp uptake was the result of rumours of an impending moratorium on oyster licenses.
Public oyster fishers still use dories and tongs and make up 70 per cent of P.E.I.’s lucrative oyster industry.
But with more marketing initiatives currently going into cultured ‘choice’ oysters — the kind mussel farmers would grow — wild oyster farmers are worried demand for their product will dwindle.
Additional concerns have been raised over the fact the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is currently studying the viability of increasing mussel farming in Malpeque Bay by a further 1,500 acres.
Public oyster fishers fear this is another 1,500 acres that could further encroach on their fishery, said Brenda Campbell, president of the P.E.I. Shellfish Association.
They have taken their concerns to Fisheries Minister Gail Shea in a postcard campaign urging DFO to cease allowing mussel farmers to convert their leases and to disallow the additional 1,500 mussel acres.
“Do not allow approval of an additional 1,500 acres in Malpeque Bay,” Campbell told the provincial fisheries committee June 20.
“Consider the serious impact on the livelihoods of our public fishers and, really, fishers and their families and their communities that they support.”
Since then, there has been a temporary suspension of the ‘add a species’ clause, but this now has mussel farmers upset.
The P.E.I. Aquaculture Association said Thursday the various fishing groups must stop fighting and work together to develop an ‘oyster vision’ for P.E.I. that recognizes the importance of both the cultured and wild fishery.
“We would also like to see all parties embark upon a positive process for building opportunities together,” said Ann Worth of the Aquaculture Association.
“Goodwill, cooperation and working side by side is the way forward.”
The provincial fisheries department is facilitating a roundtable discussion to develop a long-term vision for the wild and farmed oyster industries in P.E.I.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cultured oyster growers were upset about the "add a species" clause being suspended. The Island Oyster Growers Group, which represents P.E.I.'s cultured oyster industry, is firmly against mussel farmers being able to 'add a species' to their license and lobbied with the public oyster growers to obtain the temporary suspension.