BC Oyster Season: What to slurp and where to get them

It’s popular to speculate about who might have pried open and slurped the sweet, briny meat of an oyster first. But here on the West Coast, the evidence is ancient.

Wherever you find a calm beach or a cozy cove, you’ll often also see a slash of white in the sea-eroded bank, a layer of crushed shells, tossed here by feasting indigenous families.

For like salmon, oysters (and related shellfish) were a staple food for coastal Salish people, and the many shell middens dotting our island coastlines, literally the litter of history, tell us where they lived and harvested these briny bivalves.

Fast forward to the 21st century and oysters are still a west coast obsession.  Oyster farming in B.C., mainly on the west coast of Vancouver Island along the shores of Baynes Sound and the Discovery Islands further north, is a $40-million industry. We are the largest oyster-farming province in the country, producing 60 percent of Canada’s 26,000-tonne annual crop.

And unlike farmed salmon, farmed shellfish (like oysters and mussels) is completely sustainable and OceanWise. Oysters are not fed, they eat the wild plankton in the sea, and farming them has little or no environmental impact.



Nearly all of our B.C. oysters are the Pacific type (Crassostrea gigas), the elongated, frilly oysters first introduced into our waters from Japan. Pacific oysters can take on a variety of tastes, ranging from sweet and lightly briny to watermelon or cucumber flavours. You can also find another Japanese species here, the tiny Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), loved for its sweet, mild and buttery flavour.

On the opposite coast—in PEI and New Brunswick—the native American Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is now farmed, an indigenous Atlantic type with a rounder, smoother shell. Malpeques and Bluepoints (named for the bays where they’re grown) are Atlantic oysters, known for their crisp texture and briny flavour.

The Belon (Ostrea edulis) is found in France, a flatter European oysters with a shallow, saucer-shaped cup, a meaty texture and a bold flavour.

The wild native or Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida), still sometimes found in Washington waters, has all but disappeared here, a victim of overfishing in the 1800s.

But oysters were once cheap and plentiful.

According to the ads and reports appearing in the earliest Victoria newspapers, it must have been a great city for miners and mollusk lovers. Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon was operating on Waddington Street in 1859. By 1861, Sooke Oysters were “constantly on hand” at the Phoenix Saloon.

“This is the first newspaper reference identifying where oysters were being harvested in British Columbia, although the oyster beds in the Gorge waterway at Tillicum Narrows had been recognized as early as 1846,” notes a recent article in the Royal BC Museum’s magazine, Curious. By 1865, four other Victoria oyster saloons were advertising “the celebrated Olympia oysters in every form.”

Island oysters were exported to meet the growing demand. Records from 1910 indicate 7.7 million oysters were harvested in Vancouver Island waters, from Alert Bay and Nanaimo to Cowichan and Victoria.

Unfortunately, this oyster windfall soon ended. Overfishing led to a collapse in the wild oyster population; the “Oly” is functionally extinct here today.

Though researchers at the VIU’s Deep Bay Marine Field Station have begun efforts to reintroduce the native oyster to Baynes Sound, manager Carl Butterworth says there is “no restoration work at the moment,” and B.C.’s only native oyster remains a “species at risk.”



Jess Taylor and Sean Roberts are experts at inserting a knife into the hinge of an oyster shell and almost instantly shucking it for your slurping pleasure. As The Wandering Mollusk, they’ve made a business of popping up at parties around town to take oysters to the people, serving up thousands of the freshest local oysters over the past three years.

“At parties, we’ll shuck 600 oysters in two hours,” says Taylor. “I’ve shucked hundreds of thousands of oysters.” With their mobile shucking cart and deep knowledge of the briny bivalve, Taylor says The Wandering Mollusk is committed to sharing the local oyster culture.

“Sean and I want to be the champions of our local oysters,” says Taylor, “to talk about our farmers and our ‘merroir’ and celebrate it.”

Of course, freshness is paramount when it comes to oysters, and that’s what these wandering shuckers deliver. Their relationships with local oyster farmers mean they can guarantee the oysters they serve have been out of the water for only a few days before they land on your plate.

“We get the glory, but it’s the farmers who deserve our respect—it’s a tough gig. You wouldn’t believe how hard these guys work.”

When The Wandering Mollusk delivers their shucked oysters to individual events, they come with information sheets describing the type of oyster, flavour profile and source.

The named oysters are brands of specific producers, and though the variety is the same, the “merroir” (where, when and how the oyster is farmed and what it’s eating) changes its shape, size and flavour. They may be grown in trays or bags near the plankton-rich surface, deep in fast water, or “au naturel” on an intertidal beach.

At BCOysterGuide.com you can read more about the various types of island oysters available—like the Fanny Bay oyster, the Mac’s Beach oyster, Satori and tiny Zen from Hollie Wood Oysters on Denman Island, or the Black Pearls and Beach Angels from the eight families that form the Out Landish Shellfish Guild around Quadra and Cortes islands.

Many producers use tumbling machines to knock off the thin edges of the shells and encourage the oysters to form deeper cups as they grow. It makes for oysters that are easier to shuck (without annoying bits of shell in your oyster) and lots of oyster liquor to slurp.

Oysters grown where there’s more kelp and sea plants can have a fresh, cucumber flavor, while those grown in colder, deeper water tend to be briny and crisp. You might detect a minerality, even a touch of melon. Some have a buttery texture, but you don’t want an oyster that tastes soft or looks milky (that’s an indication they’re in their spawning phase and though perfectly safe, not great eating). Oysters generally spawn in warmer months, which is why winter is prime oyster season.

At The Wandering Mollusk, Taylor says he favours briny, sea-tumbled, beach culture oysters, like Evening Cove from Salt Spring Island, “an oyster lover’s oyster.” Tray oysters tend to be sweeter, he says, adding the small, mild Kusshi from Stellar Bay Shellfish in Deep Bay is a good “gateway oyster” to try.



The Wandering Mollusk will shuck a plate of oysters for your party for pick up at their kitchen (845 Viewfield Road in Esquimalt) just an hour before you need them. Or you may find them shucking at pop-up Sunday events at The Livet. Belly up to other oyster bars in the city and order a platter of pre-shucked bivalves—think 10 Acres Kitchen, Steamship Grill or Ferris’ Upstairs Seafood + Oyster Bar, where the oysters come raw on the half-shell, house-smoked or cooked up in various ways, from crispy breaded oysters and oysters fried in butter and garlic to baked with a wide range of toppings.

But you can also enjoy fresh oysters at home.

First, find a solid source. A local fishmonger like Finest at Sea or Oak Bay Seafood is a good place to start. At the latter, they also smoke local oysters in their own smokehouse and the takeout kitchen offers tasty plates of crispy fried oysters and chips, or oyster chowder to go.

When buying live oysters, you can ask to see the label that each grower must affix to every shipment, which lets you know exactly when and where the oysters were harvested. Make sure they are fresh and tightly shut, with no fishy smell.

It’s always fun to shuck and serve a selection so you can appreciate the different oyster-growing regions and what goes into creating each unique oyster. Freshly shucked, naked or with a drop of lemon juice or red wine mignonette, is the traditional way to enjoy raw oysters. A crisp white wine or bubbly makes the perfect sipper.

If you’re concerned about contamination, serve your oysters cooked. Heating them to 90°C for 90 seconds will kill most food-borne illnesses, though the toxin causing PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) is not killed by cooking.

Oysters can live a week out of water. Don’t store them on ice (they will die in fresh water). Rather, place a damp cloth in a pan, arrange the oysters in a single layer (deep cup down to preserve the juices), cover with a damp cloth and refrigerate at 1-4˚C. Once shucked, serve oysters on a bed of ice and eat within two hours of shucking.



It used to be said it was best to eat raw oysters during months with an “R”—September to April—when the waters are coldest and the weather still chilly for harvesting and transportation. Though refrigeration and modern farming methods mean oysters are now harvested and available year round, changes to the climate are affecting water temperatures and causing concern for farmers.

Oysters are filter feeders and take in whatever’s in the water. Last year’s outbreak of norovirus, which sickened 400 people and shuttered several B.C. farms for months, likely came from raw sewage dumped into local waters that spread through the region. The BC Centre for Disease Control never pinpointed the exact source of the outbreak, but the virus was spread by ocean tides and currents from B.C. to U.S. farms in Puget Sound.

In an article in the British Columbia Medical Journal, researchers concluded that a wet fall and unusually cold winter may have allowed the virus to survive in coastal waters. The fact that the outbreak occurred between November and March also negates the old adage about eating oysters in cooler months.

And there are also increasing worries that warming waters can host diseases like E. coli, Red Tide (paralytic shellfish poisoning) and Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a naturally occurring bacterium that can affect raw oysters.

So is it safe to consume oysters?

There is always a risk associated with consuming raw fish and shellfish. But Darlene Winterburn, executive director of the BC Shellfish Growers Association (BCSGA), says farmers are cooperating with government and regulators to prevent future problems.

All commercial oysters go through federally inspected processing plants before they get to market, which makes them safer than self-harvested shellfish, she says.



  1. Get a good shucking knife, one with a solid handle and thick blade, and a pair of heavy gloves to protect your hands.
  2. Scrub oysters before shucking, if necessary, to remove sand or mud.
  3. Set the oyster on a clean towel, on a flat surface, with the deeper, cupped side down. Fold the towel over the oyster to partially cover it, and hold it on the board.
  4. Place the point of the knife into the hinge between the top and bottom shell (at the pointed end of the oyster).
  5. Twist the blade and pry the oyster open, sliding the blade inside, along the top shell, to release the meat.
  6. Separate the top shell from the bottom, then cut the abductor muscle on the bottom shell.
  7. Set the shucked oysters on a layer of crushed ice or rock salt to keep them upright, taking care not to lose any of the juicy liquor in the shell.


Double Oyster and Spinach Stew

I created this recipe to use the pre-shucked oysters you can find in jars or tubs at the seafood shop. The pureed base of potatoes, oyster mushrooms and spinach thickens the chowder—no need for a lot of cream and extra calories. Oyster stew is traditional at Christmastime, and with slivers of brilliant green spinach and red bell pepper it’s particularly festive.


1 bunch spinach, divided

1 large onion, minced

6 medium oyster mushrooms, minced

1 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp olive oil


1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled and chopped

2 cups stock (use fish or clam broth)

½ cup heavy cream

2 cups 2% milk

1 pint shucked oysters, halved if large, liquor reserved

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Slivered roasted red peppers and sweet Hungarian paprika to garnish



Wash the spinach well in a large sink of water and squeeze dry. Discard the stems, roll the leaves and cut into chiffonade. Set aside half of the chiffonade – mince the rest of the spinach.

Mince the onion and mushrooms in the food processor (separately) to save time.

Heat the butter and oil together in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté onion for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, potatoes and half of the spinach and cook together, stirring, for 5 minutes longer. Add the stock and reserved oyster liquor, cover, bring to a boil and simmer on medium-low heat for 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft.

Add the cream and simmer 2 minutes longer, then puree using an immersion blender. When the mixture is very smooth, add the milk and reheat, just to a simmer.

Stir in the oysters (whole or cut into 2-inch pieces if very large). Cover the pan and cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes, just until the oysters have plumped and curled around the edges.

Stir in the remaining spinach and stir 30 seconds, until spinach turns brilliant green. Do not overcook.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into wide soup bowls. Top each with a tablespoon of slivered roasted red peppers and sprinkle with sweet paprika to garnish the plate. Serves 6.






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