The very short (and not particularly happy) story of P.E.I.’s Oyster Dredges

In 1913 an unfamiliar design of vessel appeared in P.E.I. waters. The motor-driven craft was of a type familiar in warmer American ports and had been  brought to the Island in an attempt to apply up-to-date technology to one of the province’s growing industries. Oyster fishermen on the Island had long used small boats and hand-operated oyster tongs. Was the application of a technology in use in the States going to revolutionize the Islands fishery?  The experiment would be watched with interest.

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Unidentified oyster dredge in Richmond Bay

Unlike many of the oyster areas in the United States the beds in Prince Edward Island waters did not see the widespread use of dredges. It was thought that the uncontrolled dredging of a commonly-held resource would not be for the general interest. In the late 19th century a battle was already shaping up regarding the dredging for mussel mud which had already destroyed substantial oyster beds. While the shell mud question remained open, legislation and regulations, beginning in 1896 and extended several times, prohibited the use of oyster dredges in public waters. However, with the introduction of leased bottom areas for beds beginning in 1913 several companies appear to have introduced dredges for use on their privately-held beds on a limited basis.  In April 1913, for example, a newspaper account relating to Bruce Stewart and Co. of Charlottetown noted that the firm had installed one of their gasoline engines as well as hoist and dredging apparatus in a 16-ton boat owned by one of the large oyster companies.  One company, the McNutt Malpeque Oyster Company, brought an American dredger north from Connecticut where it had been built in 1894. The vessel, the Hattie J., was actually registered in the name of a Charlottetown lawyer W.E. Bentley and merchant William Aitken. The vessel had been rebuilt in 1907 and had a gasoline engine. It was 38 feet long with displacement of about 19 tons.

Although it was reported that the vessel’s name had been changed to the Malpeque, this is not recorded in the registration. The Hattie J. was not alone, as a report on the oyster industry in September of the that year noted two gasoline oyster dredgers a work in the Malpeque area. Besides the McNutt company’s vessel, the Standard Cup Oyster Company was using the Bertha M. on its beds.   The Guardian reported that:

The boats are of the latest design, fully equipped for cleaning up the bottoms, planting and harvesting oysters, sweeping out starfish, the ancestral enemy of the oyster, and in short farming the oyster beds, for the farms under water are now being cultivated just as are the farms on the well-tilled uplands of the province. 

When it is said that these boats rake up the oyster harvest at the rate of 40 to 50 barrels an hour, and that already, this season, several hundred barrels have been shipped to the Montreal and Quebec markets, from the planting of last spring, an idea may be had of the almost unlimited development that is possible in the oyster business.

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Although not named this photograph from 1914, titled “oyster dredgers” is very likely the two vessels are the Hattie J. and the Bertha M.

In an overview of the industry published late in 1913 it was stated that with proper cultivation the oyster beds had the potential to yield 200 to 500 barrels an acre.  It had been hoped that oyster business would, like the Island’s fox fur industry at the same time, turn into a bonanza. By 1915  fifteen highly capitalized, publicly-traded oyster companies had been incorporated, although some of these did not actually get into production.  The two largest, the McNutt Malpeque Oyster Company and the Standard Cup Oyster Company both had dredges working their leased bottoms in Malpeque Bay.

The timing of the move was impossibly bad. In the summer of 1915 fishermen began to notice the impact of a previously unknown disease on the fishery. Some believed it had originated from American seed oysters which had been brought in to boost the stocks but the real cause has never been fully identified. It was a disaster and soon the problem had spread to beds across the province killing almost all of the province’s oysters. Within a few years the fishery had all but disappeared and it was to be decades before disease-resistant  strains of oysters emerged and the business began to return to the success it had been before the Great War. The dredges were turned to other purposes and technological advances ground to a halt. While recent years have seem major technological changes such as the growing of oysters in trays above the bottom, the day of the oyster dredger was gone, never to return.

For excellent coverage of the industry’s history seen Ed MacDonald’s chapter “Shell Games” in The Greater Gulf: Essays in the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, published in 2019.


3 thoughts on “The very short (and not particularly happy) story of P.E.I.’s Oyster Dredges

  1. Edward MacDonald

    Thanks for the shout-out and for the fascinating information about the dredges. Am I wrong or did one of those dredges sink at the wharf or suffer severe damage in a storm?

    1. sailstrait Post author

      Yes, the McNutt Oyster Company’s Hattie was at Kier’s Wharf and was badly damaged in the late September 1915 storm.


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