Aw shucks! Oysters run scarce, beset by a sea of challenges

There are myriad factors limiting the supply of local oysters in Greater Victoria’s restaurants and shops.

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Christmas can be a time of indulgence and decadence, but one local menu item that slides between those categories might prove a little more difficult to track down this festive season.

Local oysters are more elusive than usual, with some restaurants offering a limited variety of the local bivalves and many markets offering little or none for sale.

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That might seem odd in a region known for its world-class mollusks, but industry experts say it shouldn’t come as a ­surprise.

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Myriad factors are limiting the supply of local oysters in Greater Victoria’s restaurants and shops, said Nico Prins, ­executive director of the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association.

Prins said when you group toget­her the high cost of ­production, labour, trans­porta­tion, regulation, issues around working in a ­temperamental and changing climate, an ­inflationary environment that has consumers a little shy about spending, and an ­appealing export market willing to pay a premium, it’s no wonder local shellfish are proving scarce.

“Basically what it comes to is all these incremental or cumulative challenges that just combined to that perfect storm, which makes life really, really tough for the guys in the ­industry,” he said.

It’s an unfortunate set of ­circumstances, said Steve ­Pocock, president of Sawmill Bay Shellfish on Read Island.

“We have some of the best growing waters in the world right here in B.C.,” he said.

“Oyster production should be increasing every year to keep up with demand both here and in the rest of the world.”

He said part of the reason it’s not happening is farms can’t find enough labour, while ­federal and provincial ­government regulation can be onerous. “And farm tenure renewals and ­amendments are taking years to happen, which in turn ­discourages invest­ment.”

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Prins said the fact that oysters must be processed by a federally licensed facility has a number of effects, including ­eliminating direct farm-to-restaurant or farm-to-table sales, which hurts smaller producers.

And because all ­oysters must be shipped to a ­centralized ­facility, some smaller ­farmers have to save on costs by ­amalgamating product with ­others, which ­eliminates some brands from the ­marketplace.

The other issue is that due to rigorous controls, larger ­producers and processors might not want to buy from smaller farms, as it could expose them to unnecessary risk.

And while the industry ­maintains it is all for tight ­regulation to ensure food safety, it points out every step and piece of red tape adds cost.

And when costs are high, the export ­market, especially the U.S., starts to look more ­appealing.

Prins estimates 60 per cent of B.C.’s shellfish is exported to the U.S., which has less stringent regulations.

The provincial Agriculture Ministry’s most recent published figures show the B.C. oyster fishery produced about 8,360 tonnes of oysters worth $36.65 million wholesale in 2022, which was an improvement over the COVID-tinged year of 2020 when it produced 5,180 tonnes, but was down from a high in 2016 when it produced 9,300 tonnes worth $31.4 million wholesale.

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The 2022 harvest production figures are 14.7 per cent higher than the five-year average between 2017 and 2021, which was 7,280 tonnes worth $26.4 million.

Prins said there is some irony in it being hard to find B.C. ­oysters in that the producers have plenty of product but have trouble getting it to the local market.

“It’s an interesting thing because we’ve actually just come off of a very, very soft period in the industry, even to the U.S. and other export ­markets,” he said.

“It’s starting to pick up now, for Christmas, but generally speaking people ­­­don’t have money to buy more expensive or more luxury-­associated goods right now.”

Jess Taylor, who opened seafood restaurant and premium oyster bar Shuck Taylor’s at the corner of Blanshard Street and Johnson Street in ­September, said he’s noticed it’s become more difficult to find some of the smaller, local, more ­boutique oyster brands.

Taylor said it’s likely soaring costs are having a major impact in how smaller players ­operate, as smaller farms might sell to larger players to reduce the costs of shipping and processing.

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Taylor, who always has local shellfish on the menu, brings in varieties from around the world.

“I find that having other oysters really raises the profile of our own,” he said, noting it allows customers to compare the local fare with oysters from the East Coast and Europe.

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