Food for Thought

Branded with a Kiss

British Columbia’s oyster farmers unite to promote the ocean’s bounty…

It is not your typical farmhouse overlooking a typical farm.  Instead of miles of rolling pasture dotted with grazing cattle, the ‘farmhouse’ at Mac’s Oysters Ltd. in Fanny Bay overlooks the ocean.  If you watch closely, you will spot the occasional seal popping up for a breath of fresh air.  There are cormorants and other sea birds bopping along on the waves.  Instead of crowing roosters and cackling hens, you will hear the cacophonic cries of seagulls and the chirps of a bald eagle as he surveys his territory from a vantage point atop a nearby cedar.

Established in 1947 by Scottish immigrant, Joseph McLellan, Mac’s oyster farm is still owned and operated by the McLellan family.  According to his grandson, Gordy McLellan, the company now employs more than 50 people and ships a whopping 80,000 pounds of shellfish to market every week (a total of more than four million pounds per year).  In addition to the Fanny Bay location, Mac’s has operations on the shores of Quadra Island, as well as five locations on the Sunshine Coast.

Although the McLellans and other BC shellfish farmers harvest their product from the sea, the ocean floor is Crown Land, owned by the Government of Canada.  Each farmer leases the ‘land’ and is responsible for operating their shellfish farm in their designated deep water and intertidal beach areas in an environmentally responsible manner.

The piles of broken oyster shells and stacks of empty oyster crates beside each and every oyster shack are a testament to the resiliency of this industry.  Despite the fact they have not seen a price increase in many years, shellfish farms on Vancouver Island are still surviving.  And, just so you know, those heaps of oyster shells you see outside each oyster shack are not trash.  Some of the empty shells are used to ‘plant’ and grow new oysters on.  The rest of the discarded shells are crushed and used as biodegradable landscaping material or ground up as a calcium supplement for chicken feed.  This is a sustainable industry where nothing is wasted.

On the coast of Vancouver Island and the BC mainland there are dozens of oyster shacks like Mac’s, where ‘aquaculture’ not ‘agriculture’ is the business focus.  There are five main regions in BC where commercial oysters are produced: the Discovery Islands, on the BC coast across from Campbell River; Okeover Inlet and the Sunshine Coast, south of Powell River; Baynes Sound, including Fanny Bay and Baynes Bay; West Coast Vancouver Island, south of Ucluelet; and the Southern Gulf Islands, just north of Sidney.

“Shellfish farming in general—and oyster farming in particular—have been major contributors to the BC economy for almost 100 years,” explains the BC Shellfish Growers Association’s executive director, Roberta Stevenson.  “The Association was established 62 years ago to act as a governing body to represent the business and environmental interests of shellfish farmers and their industry partners. Today the industry directly employs 1,000 people in BC and produces in excess of $40 million worth of shellfish annually.  We are financially supported by our 180-plus members, along with occasional grants from the government.”

It is interesting to note that the specific oyster species that have made BC a world-renowned oyster producer are not native to these waters.  The very thing that makes our oysters so meaty and delicious—our nutrient rich, cold, clean water—also limits oyster spawning and reproduction.  So, in the early 1900s, shellfish farmers began importing larger and faster-growing oyster ‘seed’ from commercial producers.  The seed may be from ‘Pacific’ oysters but is imported from warmer regions, like Hawaii.

The Olympia oyster is native to this region but is not suitable for commercial production as it is generally quite small and irregularly shaped.  This makes them difficult to market on a commercial scale, though they are still delicious.  Many Islanders consider it a special treat to be able to harvest and enjoy native Olympia oysters.  And, according to the Capital Regional District of Southern Vancouver Island, Olympia oysters were an important food source for First Nations people, who harvested them from estuaries, saltwater lagoons, tidal flats and other protected areas, such as pocket beaches.

Today, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they are a highlight on the menu of an upscale restaurant, steaming in a fire pit on a remote beach, farmed, or harvested from the wild, the funny thing about oysters is that people either love them—or not.

People who love oysters enjoy them in a variety of ways—they slurp them raw right off the shells, they slather them with hot sauce, they dip them in batter and drop them in a deep fryer, or they toss them on the barbeque to savor their steamy flavor.  And, just as each individual’s taste in oyster toppings and presentation varies, oysters from various regions of British Columbia develop their own distinct flavors and unique culinary characteristics, too.

“Just like wine, oysters owe much of their flavor to the terroir or merrior of each growing region,” explains Stevenson.  “There are three key factors that influence the flavor and texture of BC oysters: the growing environment, the growing depth (which affects water temperature) and the farming technique—beach versus deep water or a combination of both.  Developing the Pacific Kiss brand was how we decided to promote this fact.”

In 2009, months before the Province of British Columbia was set to take centre stage by hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the BCSGA embarked on a special project that would showcase BC fresh oysters to the world.  With the support of the various shellfish growers and a grant from Western Economic Diversification’s Community Adjustment Fund and Coast Sustainable Trust, the Association developed a creative a marketing campaign to brand our world-famous oysters with a ‘Pacific Kiss’.

Launching the Pacific Kiss promotion during the Winter Olympics was perfect timing, considering that BC oysters are their most flavorful in February and that both the Olympics and oysters have a connection to the time of the Roman Empire.  It is believed that ancient Roman Emperors kept a steady supply of oysters on hand for great feasts and visiting guests.  Casanova, the famed 18th century Italian lover, reportedly started his day by consuming 50 oysters for breakfast.

As part of the Pacific Kiss campaign, each oyster producer was asked to create names for their oysters.  The oyster farmers did not disappoint.  Some, for example, were given names that linked them to their specific region and/or producer, such as Mac’s Beach, Pearl Bay and Ship’s Point.  Others were given fanciful names that were tantalizingly poetic, like Beach Angels or Summer Breeze. One name honored our Salish First Nations people—the Sinku, which means clear running water in Salish.

Branding BC oysters with a ‘Kiss of Approval’ is assurance for consumers, restaurateurs and exporters that the oysters they buy are an environmentally sustainable seafood choice.  The Pacific Kiss stamp authenticates them as World Class, top quality BC oysters, mussels, clams or scallops that are a delicious and nutritious food choice.  As importantly, it is assurance that the product was grown at an environmentally sustainable farm by a registered member of the British Columbia Shellfish Association.

The Pacific Kiss promotion focused on three target audiences.  The first was international visitors and local diners who were introduced to a gourmet dining experience featuring a platter of a dozen Pacific Kiss oysters from 12 different areas.  The Pacific Kiss Platter was served in restaurants on Vancouver Island (including several in the Comox Valley) and in the cities in and around Vancouver.  A flyer that identified each oyster’s location on the plate, the regions where they were grown, and their unique culinary qualities accompanied each platter.  The dining experience was interactive and fun, much like a wine tasting, and created a wonderful dialogue about food in general and BC oysters in particular.

Mac's Oysters

Mac's Oysters

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

As a result of this special campaign, on Valentine’s Day 2010, oyster lovers in Vancouver devoured an astonishing 500,000 raw oysters!  As expected, many of those oysters were consumed and enjoyed by Olympic visitors from other nations.  The program will continue in 2011 and the Pacific Kiss Platter is expected to get rave reviews again this Valentine’s Day and in the months to come.

The second focus was to use the Pacific Kiss promotion to educate chefs about BC oysters.  It is important that chefs understand that buying BC oysters is supportive of local growers, similar to how we have been educated to support fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate.  On September 10, 2010, BCSGA introduced BC oysters and the Pacific Kiss promotion to more than 500 chefs from across Canada who attended the Chefs’ Congress in the Cowichan Valley.

“When you take 12 different Pacific Kiss oysters from various regions in British Columbia, taste each of them and experience their differences, you start to better appreciate the industry.   As chefs, we are now able to form relationships with individual BC shellfish farmers who produce some of the best shellfish in the world,” says Robert Clark, executive chef of C Restaurant in Vancouver.

The third target is the people of British Columbia, in an effort to foster local pride in and knowledge of the product.  “The people of British Columbia should be thankful that we live in a part of the world with waters that are pristine enough to support a viable shellfish industry,” explains Stevenson.   “Not only do these farmers provide a delicious and nutritious local food product, they export it around the world and play a significant role in supporting the local economy.

“From a food safety perspective, all BC shellfish is grown under stringent Canadian standards and all fresh or frozen product is certified for export to the US and other international markets,” she adds.

“All products are tagged at harvest to ensure full traceability.  In addition, both the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program and SeaChoice recognize BC shellfish for adhering to responsible environmental codes of practice and providing consumers with a best option for seafood selection.  It is our hope that the Pacific Kiss campaign will remind Islanders that BC oysters are not just something to enjoy—they are something we should all be proud of.”

FMI: BC Shellfish Growers Association, or call 250.890.7561.

Celebrate the Sea!  The BC Shellfish Growers Association invites you to come and celebrate the bounty of the sea at the 5th Annual Shellfish Festival. The Gala Dinner will be held June 17th at the historic Filberg Lodge and Park and the day-long festival will be June 18th at the Comox Marina. More than 4,000 people are expected to attend this year’s event to sample shellfish from various producers, learn about the industry and have fun.

“In addition to all of the regular events and activities, this year’s Shellfish Festival will feature the BC Oyster Shucking Championship, live entertainment, cooking demos, lots of fresh shellfish and the Seafood Chowder Challenge for Comox Valley restaurants,” says the Festival’s Executive Director Matthew Wright. “You also won’t want to miss the Chefs’ Dinner. 200 guests will be treated to a gourmet six-course meal served by some of BC’s top chefs who have been partnered up with a shellfish grower to bring you their combined culinary delights.”  FMI: