B.C. oyster producers fighting to stay afloat financially and hold on to their farms during pandemic

·2 min read

While many B.C. restaurants have adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by offering home delivery, it is not likely a customer's first thought to dial up a dozen half shell oysters.

Normally the providers of a delicacy enjoyed at seafood restaurants and special events, oyster farmers in the province have collectively lost millions of dollars in sales since the spring when the pandemic changed the way people live.

According to the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association, it is possible some of those farmers will not survive the current situation they find themselves in.

"At the lowest point, we estimated that our members were losing about $2.4 million a month, so that's pretty grim," said Jim Russell, the association's executive director, Tuesday, on CBC's On The Island.

"Basically, people are just fighting to survive right now," he added.

Some members, said Russell, are trying to access new export markets or are packaging product for retail sales, but local sales of fresh oysters, and particularly half shell oysters, have "basically collapsed."

Federal wage subsidy extension wanted

The challenge facing many farmers is they currently have live oysters growing and, according to Russell, there is a short window of about 18 to 24 months when an oyster is at its prime market value before that price begins to diminish.

He worries that without an extension of the federal wage subsidy program, which expires Dec. 19, larger sized operations will simply not be able to pay staff to maintain and harvest oysters — even just to shuck and sell them by the gallon at a lower price point than selling them whole as preferred.

While some farmers have been able to fall back on sales of shucked products and other shellfish, such as clams, not all members have the ability to diversify.

Russell said the bleak situation has caused an increase in members trying to sell their farms.

"A number of folks have said they are considering exiting the industry," he said.

The Association is a non-profit organization that represents approximately 70 per cent of shellfish farmers in B.C., as well as processors, industry suppliers and service providers related to the industry.

To hear more on the state of the industry with BC Shellfish Association Executive Director Jim Russell on CBC's On The Island, tap the audio link below: