Erskine Lewis sits in a small presentation room in Salutation Cove, Prince Edward Island, flipping through photos of his past guests. He tells us stories of past tours, cruise ships bringing 50 guests at a time, and two particularly memorable ladies who showed up with a cooler of champagne and spent more than 3 hours out on his boat.
Erskine co-owns Future Seafoods with his brother Brian and their business partner Ted Boutilier. and has been oyster fishing since he was 11. In addition to selling oysters the family run business offer oyster tonging and shucking tours. “When Experience PEI first asked us about doing the tours, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to come try it. I’ve been doing this for many years, it isn’t the cleanest work,” Erskine told us with a laugh.
But there is a large and growing demand for real, hands-on experiences for travelers. We headed out on the boat with one other couple, visiting from New Jersey, on a wet, rainy day. Our boat mates were oyster enthusiasts and had made the impromptu trip to PEI in large part to dine on the world famous Malpeque oysters.
Erskine drove us down to the beach and lowered the boat into the water before helping us all in. Despite the mist it was a warm day on the island, and as an oyster enthusiast myself there was little the rain could do to dampen my spirits. “You know, it’s kind of a perfect day to try this. In the movies, they only ever show fishermen going out in weather like this, never the sunny days out on the water,” Erskine said.
Erskine steered us just a few meters from shore. Along the way, he told us a bit about the oyster industry in PEI. He pointed out some of the cases recently caught and clusters of oysters along the bottom. Once we were stopped and anchored, he pulled out a tall wooden device called tongs and plunges it overboard. Within less than a minute he has hauled it back up, chock full of oysters.
He began shucking as he explains the life cycle of an oyster. Here in PEI it takes anywhere from 5-10 years for an oyster to grow to market size. Left longer, oysters will live many years and grow up to a foot in diameter but are one of the only shellfish that won’t grow tough with age.
In the early 1900’s, the oyster population was almost destroyed in PEI after a disease killed off most of the oyster population. Future Seafoods have won awards for their sustainable practices. They do this by simply replicating mother nature. They help distribute and tend to oyster seeds allowing them to form slowly and naturally, thus developing a thick and well shaped natural shell. It is a slower process – some oyster companies are able to produce full-grown oysters in a mere 18 months – but it produces a much higher quality product that can survive for up to 3 weeks out of water.
Erskine is a wealth of knowledge. He can tell us where an oyster was fished, or how old it is, or how long ago it was pulled from the water just by looking at it. He explained the different types and price points of each oyster he pulls, and we listened and ate just as fast as he could shuck them (which was blistering fast).
“A standard gets you about 20 cents, a premium is the same size but it has the nicest shape, those will get you up to 50 cents. Then there are super premium which are the larger oysters, and those will get you 75 cents,” he said.
Each fisherman will try to pull about 5 flats a day, something Erskine said is about skill rather than strength. After our crash course in oyster fishing it was our turn to use the tongs. We took turns pulling them up with mixed success, mine bringing up the fewest.
After we had each had a few goes and our fill of oysters straight from the sea it was back to the shop to learn about shucking.
Erskine was a pro, a result of working with oysters most of his life. “It’s hard for me now to give a realistic demonstration of how hard it can be to open an oyster,” he said. But he gave us a great demo, taking us through how to hold the shell and angle the knife, how much pressure to apply (20lb) and how to avoid cracking the shell or getting mud in the oyster.
We gave it a go using an oyster board, and while it was much harder than he made it look we all found success. Once shucked, we had a few more while we sit around chatting.
“It can be a good living,” he said. “It’s a hard living, long days, but it can also be simple and honest. You go out with your boat for a day on the water and if you have a bad day, well, you know who to blame.”
Want to try oyster tonging and shucking in PEI? Tourism PEI booked this tour for us through Experience PEI, a company that offers a number of excursions that lets you get an up-close experience of some of the major industries on the Island. This excursion costs anywhere from $55 to $85 depending on how many people are in your group. It includes a trip out on the boat to try tonging, a lesson in shucking, a LOT of oyster eating along the way and a small box of oysters to take home with you (a little over a dozen).