An oyster in the half shell displayed alongside the top of its shell

Norm Gibbons: Cortes Island, beginnings of oyster cultivation and writing

By 1979, Norm Gibbons wanted a change. He had been one of the partners in the Refuge Cove Store for the past eight years.  He had not yet decided to move to Cortes Island, when he started looking into the oyster sector.

“Oysters weren’t cultured at that point in time. There were just oysters out there. Anybody involved in the industry picked oysters, shucked them, and sold the shuck to Vancouver.”

Image credit: that is oyster spat on the tubing next to Norm Gibbons picture above

Click here for part one of the interview with Norm Gibbons: Beginnings of the Co-op at Refuge Cove

“Then I found out about this operation down in Lasqueti Island that had its own packing plant. This place was the vanguard of the transition that was starting to happen in British Columbia, the transition into culture from wild harvesting.” 

“The reason for that was that oysters go through somewhere between a 7 and a 10 year cycle, where there’s what’s called a general spat fall. Oysters spat, they attach to all the intertidal walls in the whole southern gulf here, to all the rocks, to all the shells and so on. You end up with this huge volume of oysters.”  

“That’s how this wild fishery reproduced itself all by itself, but the whole thing came apart about the time that I got into the business.  The oysters just weren’t doing their thing. That  brought in a whole new group of oyster growers.” 

“We actually got ourselves a grant to go to Japan, and spent six weeks in Japan touring their entire seafood industry. We spent a lot of time looking at how they grew mussels, how they grew oysters and clams and so on.  When we came back to Canada, we knew a hell of a lot more than we did when we left.” 

“I was still living at Refuge Cove. The B. C. government was very supportive of what we were doing and we got grants to do all kinds of things. We ended up doing what’s called ‘raft culture.’” 

“You can hang the oysters from a raft. The column of water that has plankton in it, that the oysters can eat, goes down around 20 feet. So, there’s a 20 foot column that the oysters can feed in. They can be strung. You can have an oyster shell, with oysters that have spatted onto it and then that shell grows out into a big cluster.  You can put those shells on a string.  Every foot, you can have 15 or so shells on one string and a lot of strings on a raft. Oysters don’t sleep, they just eat. That’s all they do. So they grow really fast that way.” 

“It took about ten years, from 1980 to maybe 1990, to really get some of this new technology, not necessarily perfected, but at least  at a level that you could commercialize it.” 

“I started my first oyster lease  at Refuge Cove: on the other side of Centre Island, that’s in the middle of Refuge Cove. Then I applied for leases all around Redonda and up Lewis Channel.”

“Our business was doing very well. We had a premier customer in New York City, the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar. I think it’s the biggest oyster bar in the world. We patented the name Golden Mantle. The Golden Mantle oyster is sold in restaurants all around North America, it’s sold all around the world.” 

By 1985. Norm’s business had outgrown Refuge Cove.

“I didn’t have a phone, electricity, or roads in Refuge Cove,  just no infrastructure. I moved to Cortes because the business had grown so much.”

“I found a person who wanted to invest in my business. He just lived down the coast here a little bit, at Bliss Landing. They were all millionaires that lived there, that was their summer place. They were  involved in cable television. The McCaw brothers started cellular telephones and they were there to fuel the company with money.  So when I moved over here in 1985, I bought Jimmy Hansen’s seafood operation and all the leases that he had.” 

“Things were growing very quickly and the next thing that came along was we realized that the market had limitations in North America.  We didn’t particularly want to go head to toe with everybody, especially the Americans, because the Americans, they had huge companies, compared to ours at the time.” 

“I ended up going to Taiwan, to Taipei, for a seafood show.  I took a whole bunch of oysters with me, and started shucking oysters at this show.  All I had to do was just put my hand on an oyster knife, and a huge lineup would form. The lineup would  go right out the building and then down the street. People are just crazy about oysters in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong.”

“I started doing business there, but it was flying oysters in containers. We shipped into Hong Kong a lot and shipped into Singapore, but I found out about the Australians and the New Zealanders having a lock on frozen half shell oysters.”

“You take the top shell off, freeze the oyster, box it  and send it.  They have these oyster bars  all over Taipei, all over Asia and people just go there to eat oysters. They’re just nuts about oysters.”

“So I built a freezing plant down in Lund. It was a big freezer that had a conveyor belt in it. The oysters went in, the shuckers would shuck the top shell off and  the oysters would go on the chain and into the freezer.  It did a couple of loops and then came back up at about a 10 foot level. I had a misting operation set up. This very fine mist  mixed with ascorbic acid completely enveloped  the oyster in ice. You could keep a frozen oyster like that, and it wouldn’t deteriorate for at least a month – a year.”

“We ended up bringing up 40 foot freezer containers from Vancouver, loading them up, back to Vancouver, onto a ship.”

CC: What happened when they reached Asia? 

NG: “They would sell instantly. We couldn’t get enough oysters. One of the orders that I got was basically a year’s production of BC oysters.”

“I did it for 17 years.” 

CC: When did you get out of the oyster business? 

NG: “I think it was until 1997 or 1998. I really wanted to get out of it. Dealing in Asia: because of the time difference, the phone would be ringing off the hook at three o’clock in the morning. I was really burnt out again.

CC: What did you do after oysters? 

NG: “My wife and I moved to Victoria. I went to UVic, to the school of creative writing. Denise went to an art school down there. We did that for three or four years.”

“When I came back, I was interested in propagating plants.  At that point, there wasn’t a nursery on Cortes Island. I didn’t really plan on doing this, but I started propagating plants and I just kept it up, ending up with more and more and more and more plants – just gobs of plants.”

“I kept seeing all these trucks and cars coming back from Campbell River with plants in them. There’s no place to buy a plant on this island. So I thought, I better get rid of all this stuff that I’ve got. I did some advertising on the island and said that I’d be open for Saturday and Sunday, come anytime between 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock. The first day, when I opened the gate there was this huge lineup of people and they all had wheelbarrows. All we did that day was count money. We made $10,000 on that Saturday and Sunday and the prices that I was selling stuff for were all very reasonable. Anyways, I did that for, I think, five or six years and then I sold my operation to Laura Ellingson. She’s now got this wonderful nursery.” 

“All that time I was writing books. I wrote one, two, three books. They’re all fiction. One’s called Voyage of the Arrogant. The other’s called Sea Without Shores and the other one is a collection of very short stories.” 

“That’s what I’m doing right now, I’m writing.”

Top image credit: Golden Mantle Oysters – Photo courtesy Norm Gibbons

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