By: Meg MacKay
Photos By: Mikaila Bickford
It’s shipping day at Cascumpec Bay Oyster CO. Martin and his crew of family members can be found out on the bay at 6:00am. Already pulling on their coveralls, rubber boots, and gloves—they’re preparing for a day’s work. This time of year, they’ll be harvesting and sorting oysters; but in a couple of weeks they’ll be preparing for winter. Two feet of ice covers Cascumpec Bay, P.E.I. during the coldest months of the year and Martin sinks all his floating gear to keep the oysters from freezing. The oysters wait out winter nestled together on the ocean floor.
Martin O’Brien is the owner of Cascumpec Bay Oyster CO, a company that processes oysters from independent growers, many of which are family. “We get to share the labour, and get the job done I guess.”
The family owns a 50-acre lease, located just off Cascumpec Bay, into Foxley River. The water around the farm is so clear, you can often see the bottom. This is partly because oysters are filter-feeders, and can filter out excess nitrogen and algae from the water. Clear water, with high water quality has been shown to promote the recovery of important marine vegetation, provide important habitat for marine life, and have a positive affect on fish populations and fisheries. Martin says the company is always thinking of ways to be more sustainable, including growing more oysters than they sell. “There’s never less oysters in the water after the end of the year,” says Martin, “we’re always enhancing oyster populations.”
On the lease, the family has four separate farms. One is run by Martin and his friend and partner Matt Morgan, another is run by Martin’s parents, another by his sister and her husband and son, and the last one by his nephew. Martin says having different family farms works well. “We’re like a lot of people, we’re family and you know, we work hard and take pride in our quality.”
Martin got into the business of oyster growing through his father, Pat O’Brien, who is a retired lobster fisherman. In 2007, Pat was introduced to aquaculture and started an oyster farm. “He got into oysters and that kind of changed everything for everybody.” Martin, who at the time was studying in St. Louis, Missouri, would come home in the summers and help out at the farm. After finishing his degree, he decided to move home.
“I had no choice, whether I wanted to or not, then to come back to PEI.” It was during the 2008 recession, and job prospects in Missouri were not good, yet the oyster industry in PEI was still doing well and growing. Martin says he was also looking forward to moving back home to PEI, where he had lived most of his life. “I did kind of develop a hunger to get into the seafood business here, or do something with seafood.”
Out in the bay on a floating shed, oysters are being sorted. They use a vision grader, a piece of equipment that efficiently grades oysters based on their size and quality. This processing is almost always done on land.
Martin came up with the idea to build a floating facility to use the vision grader out on the water, so that oysters didn’t have to be transported back and forth from sea to land. “I was told I was crazy whenever I proposed that to the people that built the machine, it’s an expensive bit of equipment, pretty sophisticated”. But Martin is happy he built the platform. “It’s so isolated out there, and it’s a little bit of a sail back to shore,” he said, “it just works best to have it located right on the lease.”
Oyster farming can be a lot of hard work. They deal with biofouling gear, keeping up with regulation, and weather. “Weather is a huge thing. It’s a constant struggle, sometimes. Seems to come in waves I guess.” Yet despite the challenges, Martin loves what he does.
“There’s lots of times where you’re out working hard and it’s a long day, or a hard day, and you get a text or a call or some sort of Instagram post, you know, just really complementing, saying how much they like the oysters, or how good of a job we’re doing. That always kind of gives you a little extra push, and encouragement. Just makes it all worth it you know.”
Martin says his oysters have a clean, fresh taste and beautiful brown colour. “We have some large peat moss bogs, that kind of give a nice flavour and colour to the oysters.”
You can find Cascumpec Bay Oysters through Afishionado Fishmongers at The Warehouse Market, located at 2867 Isleville Street, Halifax. Wednesday-Friday from 11am – 6pm and Saturday’s from 9am-4pm.
Also avaliable online for pickup and delivery here!