Tofino Profile: Jim Hugh
by Shirley Langer, Tofino
The Oyster Festival is coming up, so meet oyster farmer Jim Hugh. Jim's farm is way out in Pretty Girl Cove, 10 miles due north of Hot Springs, and he only comes into town every two weeks or so.
On Channel 6, people refer to Jim as "Oyster Jim", but he modestly points out that the real Oyster Jim is on the other side, in Ukee. Clayoquot Sound Oyster Jim operates a unique oyster farming operation. When he first started in 1993, Jim did long line farming of "shuckers", as do the rest of Clayoquot Sound's oyster farmers. "Shuckers" are great oysters, but are not half shell grade. Like everyone, he sold his oysters to brokers; then, two years ago, he decided to market his own value-added product. Now, his high grade oysters destined to be smoked and canned under the label Clayoquot Sound Smoked Seafood, Ltd. are shipped directly to St. Jean's Cannery in Nanaimo.
Jim has a pen system where he grows 400,000 oysters. Each float has a set of fifteen seeded trays hanging from it. Every six weeks, the trays are hoisted up, and the oysters sorted to keep the sizing equal. Before going back into the water, two trays of oysters at a time are put through a common cement mixer for twenty seconds to break off the edges. This promotes deeper cupping as the shell grows, thus encouraging the oysters to grow deeper. From seed the size of your baby fingernail to market size, Jim's oysters are ready in under a year to place in sacks, unshucked, and sent to the cannery. Jim's licensed recipe of canned smoked oysters is high end, ending up on the shelves of Meinhardts and Urban Fare in Vancouver.
Jim pulls a can of his smoked oysters out of his pack. In it, he explains, are 12 oysters exactly the same size, smoked following a recipe he developed in order to tempt his wife, who hated oysters, to like them. When the owners of Clayoquot Wilderness Resort tasted Jim's smoked oysters, they convinced Jim to undertake a pilot commercial production. Jim hasn't looked back. The can I was looking at costs $12.50 wholesale. Must be some good! I was thinking. Then I learn that it was these very oysters that won sobo restaurant the People's Choice Award at the last Oyster Festival.
When Jim Hugh started up, he knew nothing about oysters. He thought farming oysters was something he would do in semi-retirement, but says he has never worked so hard. But the guy loves Clayoquot Sound, the friends he's made, and what he does. "Oyster farming," he says, "is a way of life. You don't get rich. That's why most oyster farmers have other jobs."
What could be done to improve matters for oyster farmers, I want to know.
"Due to the public health danger of paralytic shellfish poisoning, (known as psp), all shellfish product falls under federal jurisdiction," he responds. "So oyster farmers all agree that we need a federally approved processing plant right here in Tofino so local oysters can be graded and get a fair price. But we're not there yet. First and foremost, oyster growers are farmers – meaning they are very independent people. Eventually, oyster farmers will be forced to pull together for something better, because the cost of everything – leases, taxes, materials, production costs – is going up. Yet farmers are not getting higher prices for their product. In fact, they are getting less. So if oyster farmers don't unify, we'll fall behind, even be forced to sell to big outfits. That's why I decided to invest in a value-added product."
I'm curious to know how Jim handles living so remotely, especially when his beloved wife Donna died suddenly a year ago. His answer demonstrates a respect for the environment and love and enjoyment of an untouched area. "Pretty Girl Cove is a pristine place. Clams right on the shore for supper. Good trout fishing. Sometimes I take a 14-foot boat up the river, tie it up and continue walking along the river for miles."
He attributes the high quality of his oysters to the fact that there is no logging, no pollution, no industry in the area. As a result, there's lots of fresh water from unsilted rivers and streams, natural feed for the oysters, and no contamination. His face clouds momentarily. "My worst fear is that tourism outfits or logging operations will spread to places like Pretty Girl Cove, and bring with them all sorts of problems."
We talk about his deceased wife for a few moments. Donna Hugh was a respected elementary school teacher at Hot Springs. When she died, the whole community held a moving memorial service for her. Jim and the Hot Springs community have set up the Donna Hugh Memorial Fund* for the education of native children, whom Donna loved.
Before wrapping up, it occurred to me that if Jim had one great recipe, which for professional reasons is licensed and secret, he might have others that could be shared. Sure enough. See Jim's recipe for Channel 6 Oysters in the box.
When we said goodbye, Oyster Jim of Channel 6 headed off toward Tofino Kayaking to sign up for six tickets for the Oyster Festival. He doesn't know if sobo intends to use his smoked oysters again this year. Hoping to get a scoop, I contacted Sobo to find out. Owner Lisa said they do something entirely different every year, but, Jim's smoked oysters are the best she's ever put in her mouth, and they will be incorporated in Sobo's new fall menu. In addition, sobo keeps a case on hand to give as business and personal thank you gifts. Not bad, Channel 6 Oyster Jim.
Not bad at all!
Oysters a la Channel 6
- 18 med. oysters (approx. 3-3 1/2" in length)
- 4 or 5 bacon slices
- 3 tablespoons chili sauce
- 1 tablespoon
- 6 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon tarragon
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Fry bacon until crisp; place on paper towel to drain; crumble into bits for garnish
- Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from pan.
Add oysters with their liquid and cook uncovered over medium heat until most juices are absorbed.
- Mix remaining ingredients and add to oysters.
Simmer for about five minutes. Serve on a bed of rice.
Serves 4-6 people
*Contributions to the Donna Hugh Memorial Fund can be made at any Bank of Montreal in Canada.
Shirley Langer describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic consciousness.
- Tofino Film Festival: February 17-20, 2016
- Pacific Rim Whale Festival: March 12-27, 2016
- Artsplash PRAS Art Show: March 12-20, 2016
- Tofino Shorebird Festival: April 29 - May 1, 2016
- Feast! Tofino-Ucluelet: May 6-22, 2016
- Clayoquot Island Open House: May 21-22, 2016
- Tofino Public Market: May - September, 2016
- Tofino Food & Wine Festival: June 3-5, 2016
- Pacific Rim Summer Festival: June 30 - July 9, 2016
- Ukee Days: July 22-24, 2016
- Tofino Lantern Festival: August 14, 2016
- Tofino Beer Festival: September 26, 2015
- Queen of the Peak: September 30 - October 2, 2016
- Tofino Oyster Festival: November 17-19, 2016
- Tofino Winter Celebration Artisan Festival: Dec. ?, 2016
- West Coast Winter Music: Nov. 2, 2015 - April 2, 2016