Warming waters a case of good news, bad news for P.E.I. oyster harvesters

Longer boat-harvest seasons possible... but storms can take a sudden toll

As the waters around Prince Edward Island warm and experts warn of more severe weather events in the future, some Island oyster harvesters are balancing the pros and cons of the changing climate.

"You give with one hand, you take with the other," said James Power, the general manager with Raspberry Point Oysters in Cavendish.

"Having a warmer winter in P.E.I. or a longer growing season for the oysters — part of that's helpful. But on the negative side, if you have more hurricanes and more extreme weather, then that causes problems."

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Oyster harvesting is done year-round in Prince Edward Island waters. In the summer, harvesters will use a boat. In the winter, though, a chainsaw is needed to cut into the ice and ATVs or snowmobiles come into play to haul out the oysters.

But that comes with challenges. Back in 2019, some people spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to find a chainsaw strong enough to cut through the thick ice.

Oysters/Sam Wandio/CBC News

People at Raspberry Point are still using the company's boat to harvest oysters because of the lack of ice. (Sam Wandio/CBC News)

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That hasn't been so much of a problem to date this year.

So far, the lack of ice means Power is still using his boat to harvest.

Asked if he thinks there will come a time he do that all winter, he said: "Part of me hopes so. It solves some problems for us. If we have a lot of ice, then there's a chance that we have a lot of snow. And sometimes a lot of snow on the ice causes problems."

'Massive impact' pegged at $70M

There's another side to this too, though. Post-tropical storm Fiona caused considerable damage to oyster farms across the province.

A climatologist at Memorial University previously said that if the planet and oceans continue to warm, storms like Fiona will become more common.

"It had a massive impact on the industry," said Peter Warris, the executive director of the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance. "We estimate the damage overall to the industry here in the Island is over $70 million.

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Oysters/Sam Wandio/CBC News

'We really see a need for an established recovery program for the agriculture industry,' says Peter Warris, the executive director of the P.E.I. Aquaculture Alliance. (Sam Wandio/CBC News)

Power said the storm was so strong it broke the lines that his oyster grow cages were attached to, not to mention covering about 20 per cent of the harvested oysters in silt.

"Once they got covered in silt, they had a short lifespan before they suffocated," he said.

"It's a minimum of a three-year growth cycle to get an oyster. So we're probably at least another year away before we get back to recovering the stocks that we lost in that time."

Additional measures have since been taken at Raspberry Point to help protect the farm.

As for Warris, he said there needs to be more support to help the industry better prepare for and recover from intense weather events.

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"We've seen storms and obviously we had some impact from [2019 post-tropical storm] Dorian and we've had impacts from storms from way back before I started here," he said.

"But I suspect that with the impacts of climate change, we are going to see more frequent or higher-intensity storms."

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Thumbnail courtesy of Sam Wandio/CBC News.

The story was originally written by Sheehan Desjardins and published for CBC News. It contains files from Victoria Walton and Sam Wandio.