Fishing on the beach in B.C.
Digging for oysters, clams and other shellfish unearths nature's succulent treats
At low tide, a large expanse of beach becomes accessible to recreational shellfish harvesters on a course at the Deep Bay Marine Field Station on Vancouver Island. In the background, the floats and rafts of commercial shellfish growers can be seen.
Photograph by: Suzanne Morphet
Gripping the handle of my knife, I push the two-inch steel blade gently into my prey.
I don't want to kill it - oysters are best eaten alive - so after prying open its protective shell, I carefully slide the blade under the flesh, cutting the muscle that holds it in place.
"These guys are like a treasure box," says our guide, Brian Kingzett, who is wearing heavy-duty rubber gloves and a T-shirt that says "Shucking Ridiculous". As I squeeze fresh lemon onto the oyster and lift the saltysweet bivalve to my lips, I couldn't agree more.
And you can't get fresher oysters - or more satisfying ones - than those you harvest yourself at low tide on a beach like this one at Deep Bay on Vancouver Island. But how many of us do? Kingzett, who manages the Deep Bay Marine Field Station, is worried we've lost our culture of foraging for shellfish. "This is nothing but protein sitting on this beach," he says, looking around at white-shelled oysters, ribbed cockles, enormous moon snails, orange sea stars and limegreen sea lettuce.
Out in the bay, orderly rows of yellow buoys and black rafts indicate commercial shellfish harvesters are also here. But while they're consumed with the business of growing oysters and clams and getting them to market as quickly as they can, recreational harvesters are more interested in the fun of foraging. The problem is many of us don't know where to go and wouldn't know the difference between a Manila clam and a butter clam if it squirted us in the face. "Some people don't even know what a sea star is," Kingzett sighs. "There's so much disconnect happening when we don't have a relationship to the ocean."
The Deep Bay Marine Field Station is trying to change that by organizing hands-on beach tours like this one, followed by a three-course seafood dinner paired with Vancouver Island wines back at the station.
When we arrive, the tide is way out. "You want to be under a threefoot tide," Kingzett tells us as we don work gloves and choose shovels and rakes from the back of a truck. "We're just coming off a full moon, so we're getting some low tides."
Deep Bay is in Baynes Sound, the narrow channel between Denman Island and Vancouver Island, about 30 km north of Qualicum Beach. Water here is still exceptionally clean, which explains why more than 90 per cent of beaches in the Sound are leased by commercial shellfish growers.
Those beaches are off-limits to recreational harvesters, as are any beaches that have been closed due to contamination from sewage or other pollution, which rules out the entire lower mainland, according to Kingzett.
On Vancouver Island pockets of beaches are open to recreational harvesters; they can be located on the website of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Harvesting shellfish from a closed beach is not only potentially dangerous - shellfish can harbour deadly toxins - but also illegal.
"What I notice is a lot of people are intimidated by it," says Kingzett of all the rules and safeguards. "Shellfish sustained First Nations for millennia, but at the same time, there's a good rationale for why people should be cautious because we keep dumping our crap in the water, right?"
Intimidating? Yes, but also hugely rewarding. After slurping back a few oysters, we're ready to dig for clams. It's a lot more work. "Your success is directly related to how many cubic yards of sand you move," Kingzett tells us as he gets down on his knees and begins raking the heavy, wet muck. "A good clam digger can get 35 pounds between tides."
We find some, but can't identify them. "That's a butter clam," he tells one woman who holds up an almost perfectly round clam. "You'll want to cut the neck off that before you eat it. That's where they can hold toxins."
While there's predominantly one kind of oyster to be found on B.C. beaches - the large Pacific oyster, which was cultured after the native Olympia was almost wiped out - there are many kinds of clams ... butter, Manila, varnish, razor and the native littleneck. Geoduck clams are here too, but good luck finding them. "Geoduck is Coast Salish for dig deep," laughs Kingzett.
After filling our buckets, we head back to the research station, stopping on our way to snap off some tasty shoots of Salicornia - also known as sea asparagus - that grows on salt water beaches and can be eaten raw or pickled.
While we've been busy foraging, two chefs from the Culinary Institute of Vancouver Island have been prepping seafood and are ready to start cooking. Before our hungry eyes, they bread and fry oysters, steam clams, marinate mussels and whip up clam chowder.
We're happily reminded of what aboriginal people often say - that when the tide is out, the table is set.
It's still true, even if it takes some time and effort on our part to realize it.
The Deep Bay Marine Field Station will host one more Foraging For Wild Edibles events this year, in October, date and time to be announced.
The cost is $95 per person plus tax and reservations are required.
Call 250-740-6611 or visit viu.ca/deepbay/.
Parksville - Qualicum Beach is famous for its wide, sandy beaches and 21 degree C water in summer. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park is a family favourite.
With its old growth forest, Eng-lishman River Falls Provincial Park is a cool place to relax on a hot day, as is Milner Gardens and Woodland, considered one of Canada's top ten public gardens.
Animal lovers will enjoy the near-by World Parrot Refuge, the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, and goats on the roof at the Coombs Country Market.
Foodies should check out the Saturday morning market in Qualicum Beach, Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, Mooberry Winery and Lori's Whiskey Creek Farm.
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