Tonging the Wild Oyster
The hallmark of oyster fishing is a set of oyster tongs which are a long scissor-like tool with metal rakes on the ends.The handles range from six to 16 feet long and the rake ends, or heads, are two to three feet wide with teeth spaced one and a half inches apart. The handles are joined together about one-third the way up from the bottom end so that the two rakes can close together to pick up oysters. Harvesters choose the length of the handle depending on the depth of the water.
From small dories the oyster-fisher stands on the side of his boat to place the tongs in the water. The handles are worked back and forth in a jerking motion to pluck wild oysters between the teeth of the tongs from the bottom of the river. The closed tongs scoop the oysters and lift them into the boat and dump them onto the culling board to be graded, returning undersized oysters to the sea. This is a fair-weather harvesting method because it’s difficult to handle tongs in choppy waters.
“Tonging” remains the only legal way to commercially harvest wild oysters in Prince Edward Island. The use of tongs in Malpeque dates to the mid 19th century. Fishing for oysters in the past, meant collecting fully grown shell fish which are growing ‘wild’ on the bottom of bays, rivers and inlets. There was no cultivation as there is today. The catches were landed, cleaned, graded and packed for market. Until the early years of the 20th century, it was a common sight to see up to 500 in Malpeque Bay, fishing or collecting oysters that grew there naturally.
That’s me, the novice, shown above with oyster fisher, Hubert Marchbank, as he demonstrated how to tong the wild oysters. His lease is in Enmore River located on the south shore of the North Cape Coastal Drive, PEI. Of all the shells I “tonged” during my time on the water it was the broken oyster shell (shown above) that inspired a new artwork called “Breakthrough”. In it I saw a reminder that we can overcome, or breakthrough, the obstacles and challenges in our lives when we discover ways to work together!
This Oyster Art needed me to take 80 photographs of overlapping in-focus portions of the section of shell indicated by the rectangle. My first attempt involved many hours of work that failed to capture enough in-focus areas to create a successful image. I liked the composition so much that I was willing to scrap what I had done and restart the whole process. After a successful second attempt Breakthrough was added to the Open Edition and is now enjoyed by those who have purchased it.
All sizes and print options for Breakthrough are available HERE!
CLICK HERE to watch this video of tonging wild oysters in Bedeque, also located on the southern coastline of PEI !