The oyster is his world

What's a Manitoba boy doing, farming the sea?
By: Bartley Kives

CORTES ISLAND, B.C. -- Crouching on a plywood platform floating off the shore of B.C.'s Cortes Island, a deeply tanned figure who calls himself The Oysterman leans over the chilly water of Gorge Harbour and yanks up a wriggling mass of sea life that seems too vivid to exist.

Forest-green sea urchins, olive anemones and purple starfish are tangled up with orange sea cucumbers, a maroon-coloured chiton and one big, brown rock scallop that later turns out to be impeccably sweet.

But the main attraction in this catch are two dozen green and ochre Pacific oysters, which took two years to grow from seedlings on lines suspended eight metres below the aquaculture platform.

"No food. No fertilizer. No inputs whatsoever," beams The Oysterman, clutching a single bivalve as he boasts about what it takes to grow shellfish in the fertile waters around Cortes Island, at the western end of the Georgia Strait.

"I don't have to add anything. The ocean provides everything. It's an amazingly simple way to farm."

Growing oysters may be simple, but it certainly isn't easy. It forces you to work at the mercy of the twice-daily tides and unpredictable elements.

It's also an odd vocation for a man who was born and raised more than 1,800 kilometres from the nearest oyster-bearing ocean.

The Oysterman is Brent Petkau, a former southern Manitoba farm boy who grew up amid a sea of wheat and canola, not oysters and clams.

"From a very early age, I always wanted to be a farmer. I am fulfilling what very, very clearly is a dream, the lifestyle of my father," says Petkau, a 50-year-old who slightly resembles an aging surfer, with his seagrass hat, cut-off shorts and Santa Claus beard.

Growing up on a family farm near Thornhill, a community northwest of Morden, Petkau said he noticed something wasn't quite right about the state of the family farm.

He saw farmers being forced to spend increasingly large sums on chemicals and equipment to rake in bigger yields. He studied agriculture at the University of Manitoba but didn't see a future in industrial-scale farming.

So he did what a lot of Canadian kids did during their 20s: He bummed around Central America, trekked around India and wound up in the mountainous interior of B.C., working a series of forestry jobs.

The idea to start farming oysters arrived 13 years ago, when a four-hectare oyster and clam lease came up for sale on Marina Island, an uninhabited oval off the shore of larger Cortes Island, accessible to the B.C. mainland via three ferry rides.

He knew next to nothing about oysters, other than he liked the size and scale of aquaculture farms.

"The numbers are smaller. You don't need to have every implement in the world. All you need is a working boat," he said. "You start appreciating that smaller is beautiful."

After climbing a steep learning curve, Petkau now sells about 100,000 oysters a year, sometimes to restaurants but mostly directly to customers in B.C. and around the world. He also harvests and sells clams, continuing an ancient form of mariculture that sustained First Nations in coastal B.C. for millennia.

But the oyster remains his obsession, as he sees the simple mollusk as a sustainable means of feeding a planet that is running out of fish and seafood. Unlike fish farms, oyster beds require no food, as filter-feeding mollusks subsist entirely on plankton from the ocean. Biologists also believe oysters actually improve the coastal environment, unlike the B.C. salmon farms being blamed for everything from littering the sea floor with feces to encouraging an explosion of the sea lice that kill juvenile wild salmon.

The social and environmental potential of what Petkau sees as a panacea -- consequence-free protein from the sea! -- has turned The Oysterman into something of a missionary when he speaks.

"I would love everyone in Canada to try something so fresh it still tastes like the ocean," he says late on a July evening, sitting outside his ramshackle wooden house on Marina Island, the otherwise uninhabited oval of forest where he tends to his oysters and clams. He spends his summers here with his wife and teenage kids.

Back in the 1920s, people in Winnipeg and small towns across the Prairies consumed far more oysters than they do today, he claims, partly because Prince Edward Island malpeques could easily survive a railroad trip without refrigeration.

But in recent decades, oysters have gone from being a commonplace, blue-collar foodstuff to a relatively exotic delicacy, priced far beyond the means of ordinary restaurant-goers at up to $4 a piece. Petkau wants to see average Canadians lose their squeamishness and reacquire a taste for raw seafood.

Right at the source, it seems like an easy sell. At the aquaculture platform, where bags of market-ready oysters chill out in cold, deep water before they're shipped to customers, Petkau slices open a live bivalve and offers its glistening, off-white meat. It tastes more complex than any oyster from a Winnipeg restaurant or bar, with the initial seawater flavour yielding to mineral tones and finally hints of what tastes almost like watermelon.

"His oysters are fantastic," says Patrick McMurray, a champion oyster shucker and co-owner of Toronto's Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill, one of North America's most highly regarded oyster bars. "The flavour range is fantastic. You get the melon and lemon notes and also the meatiness."

Starfish is among a growing number of seafood restaurants that only purchases sustainably caught or farmed fish or shellfish. Ironically, McMurray doesn't often get his hands on Cortes Island oysters, which are sold as Royal Courtesans, as most of Petkau's harvest remains in B.C.

Even in Vancouver, Royal Courtesans rarely appear in oyster bars because restaurants keep trying to drive down the price of Petkau's harvest. He says he needs at least $1 for each oyster, while restaurants want to pay 50 cents. Hence his decision to sell directly to customers.

"Sustainability only means something if everyone asks the question, what does it take to make a living wage? If you don't ask that question, it doesn't mean anything, even if you have a sustainable product like oysters," he says.

Champion shucker and restaurateur McMurray said most oyster lovers have no idea it takes two to three years or even longer to grow an oyster. He commends farmers who stick to the trade -- especially people such as Petkau who are maintaining a tradition they had to acquire.

"Most land folks are shy of the water. This guy took to it. I'm from Toronto myself. There are a few of us who are crazy that way," he says. "I think you need to have a screw loose. And Brent has a couple."

Petkau himself doesn't argue the point, but remains hopeful about his craft. "You have to have faith the art of farming is going to continue," he says. "It's a working lifestyle, and it demands hard work. But I want to do this until the day I die."


The raw goods

Here's how you can tell apart the five species of oysters you're most likely to come across:

Eastern oysters

Formal name: Crassostrea virginica

Common names: Malpeques, Blue Points, Wellfleets, Caraquets,Cotuits, Cape Bretons, Raspberry Points, Colville Bays and Pemaquids,among many other varieties.

Found: Once found in incredible numbers across the Atlantic coast ofNorth America, from Prince Edward Island to the Gulf of Mexico. Wildpopulations in the once oyster-covered Chesapeake Bay have beendrastically overharvested and now exist in tiny remnants. Still farmedacross much of the original range, especially in the Maritime provincesand New England. Also farmed in the U.S. northwest.

Appearance and flavour: This is the oyster that most people envisionwhen they think "oyster." Eastern oysters are five to 12 centimetresacross, have a mild, sweet flavour that depends -- as it does with alloysters -- upon the specific place they grow.

Olympia oysters

Formal name: Ostreola concaphila

Common name: Olympias.

Found: Used to grow wild across the Pacific coast of the U.S. andinto B.C., but now found only in pockets, particularly in Washingtonand California.

Appearance and flavour: Olympias are smaller and rounder than other oysters and have a delicate flavour.

Kumamoto oysters

Formal name: Crassostrea sikamea

Common name: Kumamotos.

Found: Native to Kyushu, Japan. Now also farmed in B.C. and the U.S. northwest.

Appearance and flavour: Round and small like Olympias, but with a craggier, more ruffled shell. Often very meaty for their size.

Pacific oysters

Formal name: Crassostrea gigas

Common names: Japanese oysters, Fanny Bays, Denman Islands, GoldenMantles, Malaspinas, Kushis, Hama Hamas and Royal Miyagis, among manyother varieties.

Found: Native to the Pacific coast of Asia but introduced to much ofthe world. Now farmed in B.C., the U.S. northwest, Europe, Australiaand New Zealand. Probably the most common oyster species today.

Appearance and flavour: Larger and craggier than eastern oysters("gigas" means gigantic). Their flavour also varies widely bymicro-climate. Vancouver Island and Washington-grown bivalves, forexample, may have melon or cucumber-like overtones.

European flat oysters

Formal name: Ostrea edulis

Common names: Belons, Galways

Found: Once found all along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts ofEurope, flat oysters now grow wild in small pockets. The most famousare the Belons, which are harvested from the Belon River in France, andGalways from Galway, Ireland. Also farmed in Maine.

Appearance and flavour: European oysters are flatter and smootherthan other varieties. They also taste more metallic, albeit in apleasant way.

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