OKEOVER INLET, B.C. – At the end of a winding dirt road, north of Powell River on the Sunshine Coast, are clusters of some unusual farmers living on the beaches of Okeover Inlet.
These are farmers of the sea where oysters, clams and other shellfish are grown every year for seafood lovers.
At Grace Harbour Oysters, Bob Paquin and his staff literally seed these shellfish into water using larvae from California.
Rob Langley and his wife Nina own Okeover Arm Sea Farm beside Paquin’s operation. They seed the beaches with manila clams.
It’s as risky as farming on the Prairies with rising and falling markets, weather problems, pest control and unpredictable diseases.
For these farmers, it takes 2 ½ years to grow a crop.
The farmers have discovered shellfish thrive in the Okeover Inlet because it has a narrow entrance fed by the Georgia Strait. The water is a mix of salt water freshened with rain water. In the summer the top metre of water can warm to 25 C, said Langley.
At Grace Harbour Oysters they start with larvae as small as a grain of pepper. The larvae arrive in a special cooler at a cost of $150 per million.
Grace Harbour workers place about five million larvae, a cluster about the size of a tennis ball, into a special saltwater tank with the temperature at 22 C.
The oysters attach themselves to special corrugated plastic pipes inside the tank and after about two weeks are moved outdoors. They can eventually grow shells as large as a man’s hand.
“At harvest it takes a long time to chip the oysters off the pipe,” Paquin said.
He estimates they lose between five and 10 percent of the oysters before they can be harvested. Some are suffocated by mussels or barnacles, eaten by starfish or broken at shucking. Damaged oysters are thrown away.
Starfish are the only predators oysters face in this area and when farm workers notice a starfish problem, they immerse the pipes in a lime solution. This kills the starfish but doesn’t harm the oysters.
At the shucking plant, oysters are graded small, medium and large. The largest are preferred by Oriental customers.
The oysters are shipped fresh to Vancouver where they sell for $8.50 a quart and have a 12-14 day shelf life in refrigerators.
At Okeover Arm Sea Farm, Langley grows manila clams as well as oysters.
Langley buys Manila clam seed stock from a California hatchery to guarantee consistency. The clams grow on slatted trays lined with mosquito screens from the size of a pinhead to thumbnail size. Langley and his crew then broadcast the little clams on the beach during low tide.
The clams tip themselves up and dig into the beach where they stay for two to three years until clam diggers dig them up with small three-tined rakes.
The clam diggers bring in the harvest under cover of night at low tide, wearing miner-style headgear with flashlights. They harvest about 1.5 million clams a year.
“We have quite a problem with poachers and because we harvest at night in wintertime, we don’t know who is out there,” said Langley.
They sell the clams for about $100 for a 50 pound (22.5 kilogram) bag or $4-$5 a pound retail.
One problem facing all shellfish farmers in the area is a phytoplankton called red tide. It occurs naturally from time to time and doesn’t kill the fish, but it is toxic to people eating seafood exposed to it. Mussels are affected by red tide first. Samples of water are submitted every week to the fisheries department to ensure it is free of red tide.
“The waters have to be clean for two weeks before they will reopen an area,” said Paquin.