Back in Play: P.E.I. First Nation Restarting Province’s Only Shellfish Hatchery

Walking into the Bideford Marine Centre feels a bit like visiting some mad scientist’s laboratory out of a movie.

All around are vats of varying sizes filled with water bubbling violently, each coloured in various shades of green, yellow and red and all glowing brightly, lit from behind with purple light.

But, thankfully, the only person around the lab on this particular visit is far from mad — or he at least hides it very well.

That’s Steven Palmer.

On this particular day, Palmer was using a hose to fill a bucket with some of that freaky-looking water from one of the vats.

It was feeding time.

Once full, he carried his burden into the adjoining room and slowly poured it into several shallow blue tubs mounted on racks, each containing a number of large oysters or quahogs.

A lot is resting on those few handfuls of shellfish — the hope for a whole industry, in fact.

The Lennox Island First Nation, the larger of the two aboriginal communities on P.E.I., owns the Bideford Marine Centre via the Lennox Island Development Corporation. The corporation recently announced plans to start producing shellfish larvae, known as spat, at the Centre, for sale to the aquaculture and public fishery markets. There has been no such breeding facility on P.E.I. since the 1980s, until now.

“It’s a niche in the market that is being unfulfilled,” said Lennox Island Chief Matilda Ramjattan.

“I always say we’re creative natives — we have to find ways to succeed in whatever we do.”

Bideford Marine Centre actually has a decades-old history on the banks of the Bideford River, which is a tributary of the famous oyster waters of Malpeque Bay.

The Centre now sits where a small scientific research station was built around 1900. A few years later, around 1915, Malpeque Oyster Disease mysteriously spread throughout the region, destroying most of the species’ population and all but wiping out the industry.

However, scientists at the station managed to isolate a strain of local oyster immune to the disease and used them to eventually repopulate the species on P.E.I. and beyond.
Shellfish science has taken place in the area off and on ever since.

The facility, now known as the Bideford Marine Centre, was established decades ago as the regional shellfish hatchery, but closed in the 1980s. The facility went through various tenants after that, including the University of P.E.I. and the provincial trades institution, Holland College. Most recently it was used as a storage building.

Frankly, it was a terrible waste of a resource, said Mike Randall, executive director of the Lennox Island Development Corporation.

But, he added, that ended a couple of years ago, when his organization put renewed effort to develop the building to its full potential.

“What we were mandated to do was: ‘here’s a building, find a use for it. We own it, so let’s use it to create some revenue and create some jobs.’”

Most of the shellfish seed currently used in the aquaculture industry on P.E.I. is purchased from out of province. The public fishery does have a wild spat collection program through its user group, the P.E.I. Shellfish Association, but it is susceptible to natural variations on the environment and it doesn’t supply nearly enough to feed P.E.I.’s expansive shellfish aquaculture industry.

“It just makes sense at the end of the day… to make the seed available here on P.E.I.,” Randall said.

He is hoping the Centre will be able to make its first sale in the spring and ramp up production from there.

In the meantime, the Centre is undergoing a facelift and modernization thanks to some government and community funding.

The corporation recently announced $248,683 in new funding for the project from ACOA, the province of P.E.I., the Aboriginal Aquaculture in Canada Initiative and the Aboriginal Business and Entrepreneurship Development fund.

Since that announcement was made recently and more people become aware that the Centre is getting back into the shellfish business, Randall said he’s received positive feedback from the community.

“Just by word of mouth I’m hearing a lot of people are anxiously waiting to get (seed) out and they want to get their names on a list. So, I’m hoping we’re going to be able to produce enough to please everyone, then some,” said Randall.

But in order for those lofty ambitions to be achieved, Palmer, or someone else, has to keep hauling those buckets of green and yellow water into the oyster tanks.

They’re voracious little eaters, remarked Palmer, as he dumped another load into one of the tanks. Even though the water he was adding was highly concentrated with algae, it was only enough to feed the few shellfish in the tank for about half a day.

He’s glad the renovations include a system to automatically feed the brood stock.

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