© Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK

HERITAGE PEARLS
IN A WORLD OF OYSTERS
The amount of certified sustainable seafood available worldwide continues to increase as more and more fisheries, driven by consumer and retail demand, obtain the blue tick of approval from the Marine Stewardship council. Lesley Smeardon finds out how focusing on good fishing practices can maintain livelihoods, support modern day profits and improve environmental quality.
In Britain’s oldest recorded town of Colchester, they’ve been fishing native oysters since the Romans arrived 2,000 years ago. Since that time, the waters of the Blackwater River, part of the Greater Thames Estuary, have been rich with the shelled delicacies that now grace the tables of some of London’s more fashionable restaurants. Such is the history of the fishery that even today the Mayor of Colchester, in keeping with a tradition that dates back to the 1500s, sails down the river to Mersea in the first week of September to cast the first dredges that officially open the oyster season. This is followed in October by a grand civic Oyster Feast where dignitaries from around the country are invited. Today it is the soap and sports stars who are as likely to be invited as the High Sherrifs and councillors in this modern town of around 180,000 which include London commuters, retail, manufacturing and tourism workers and, of course, fishermen. The centre of the region’s thriving oyster fishery is situated 10 miles from Colchester on the small island of Mersea, separated from the mainland by a small channel. Both native and rock (gigas) oysters are cultivated in the shallow creeks leading from the Blackwater where warm summer sea temperatures and nourishment from the nearby marsh are perfect for the oysters.

Richard Haward, whose fishery is undergoing MSC accreditation, is a seventh generation oysterman whose family has over 200 years of experience growing oysters along the Blackwater River.

KEEPING THE TRADITION
Every year in September, Mersea Island holds its annual oyster dredging match that sees a whole community brave the cold to participate or simply watch the spectacle.

The Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster fishery itself is fairly small with a catch of around 60 metric tonnes a season. At one point there would have been around 150 boats dredging the Blackwater but today only around 20 fishermen are part of the fishery.

The Tollesbury and Mersey native oyster fishery is hoping to make history by becoming Britain’s (and maybe the world’s) first recognised sustainable oyster fishery.
Says seventh generation oysterman, Richard Haward, Director of the Tollesbury and Mersey Native Oyster Fishery Company: “My family has been growing oysters in these shallow creeks since 1792 when William Haward sailed to deliver oysters to London’s Billingsgate Market. There have been a lot of changes since then. In my working life I’ve seen native oyster stocks decline for many years before recovering in the 1980s when TBT (tributyltin) antifouling was banned. As a company we’ve had to adapt our husbandry methods to protect against the oyster disease Bonamia and we’ve had to grow the more common gigas (rock) oyster which now spawns in the wild in order to make a good living which we can’t do on native oysters alone.” The fishery is hoping to make history once more by becoming Britain’s (and maybe the world’s) first recognised sustainable oyster fishery through certification with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Funding for the process has been provided by WWF and HSBC, with advice and guidance through the certification process from fishery experts within CoastNet. The case for certification is compelling as Giles Bartlett, Fisheries Policy Officer at WWF, points out. “Globally 76% of fish stocks are fished above the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), which is a shocking statistic. In Europe, where you might expect the situation to be better, 88% are fished past MSY, of which 30% are outside safe biological limits, perhaps not recoverable. This must change.”

Colchester Mayor Henry Spyvee opened the match in 2009 as has been tradition since the 1500s, casting the first dredges aboard the Foreman Smack ‘Mermaid’.

© Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK

The match lasted for two hours before the fleet sailed to Packing Shed island for the weigh-in and an oyster opening competition.

The Edge
www.coastnet.org.uk/theedge | December 2009

magazine

“Through Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC), we can improve the management of fisheries globally, reducing the likelihood of fish stock decline and greatly increasing the chance of recovery. Equally, MSC certification will improve other environmental impacts of the fisheries, such as the bycatch of seabirds, cetaceans and other marine wildlife, as well as other fish, which are still far too high in many fisheries around the world.” MSC certification has long been considered a motivator for securing a healthy and resilient fish population while improving socio-economic benefits of the fishery. Haward certainly recognises the benefits of certification: “MSC accreditation will give recognition to how we grow our oysters, which we have always considered to be sustainable. It will also help to show that there are oysters other than the more recognised gigas out there. It may even enable us to increase prices. These haven't really changed in over 15 years.” The process is well on the way with certification hoped to be achieved by April 2010 but it’s been a slow process and without the funding from WWF and the technical help from CoastNet, Haward is certain it would never have happened. “A small industry like ours could not have envisaged funding the process. We were lucky to have had funding to undertake the pre-assessment which was a short health check on our fishery, but had to wait some time before we could find financial help and the expert advice to complete the process.” Dr Theresa Redding from CoastNet who is providing the technical expertise to guide the fishery through the certification process says it’s hard for fisheries to do this themselves with often prohibitive costs. “It’s true that the costs of certification are too high for many fisheries. We have been working with inshore fisheries that tend to be more closely connected to the local coastal community and very small scale. This means barriers to assessment are huge: organisational capacity to manage the MSC process, volume of catch and therefore revenue to support the costs are two.

“We help secure the much needed funding for assessment and act as the liaison body between the fishery and the certification process. Our role is to facilitate a smooth assessment process and reduce the burden on the fisheries to organise interviews, data, publications and expertise needed by the certification body for both the preassessment phase (the general health check of the fishery) and the main assessment. The Tollesbury fishery’s sustainability comes through a variety of factors including: size of haul, methods used, and an innate understanding of the need to ensure fish stocks increase or remain stable throughout the seasons to maintain the future of the fishery. Looking long term at fisheries in general, Haward is cautiously optimistic. “Attitudes are changing and many more fishermen are taking a longer term view but do need to see a financial benefit in changing their ways. What is good is the change in public perception towards sustainability which could result in a higher value being put on sustainable practices. This is especially the case since there are now so many more sustainably-caught fish available.” And change there has been. Since 2006, an increased focus among seafood buyers including major supermarket chains in Western Europe and the US has led to MSCcertified seafood on shelves. This, coupled with a public demand for sustainably-produced products, puts the drive for sustainable fisheries into the hands of many.

© Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK

© Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK

HOW DO YOU EAT YOURS?
Raw, cooked with lemon, with Tabasco, or not at all, it’s all a matter of personal taste. A native oyster has a much stronger, more robust flavour where the mineral flavours in a Pacific or rock oyster, flavours are more subtle. For the Mersea Oysterman, Richard Haward: “I prefer my oysters the 'natural way – just as they are'. A little lemon's OK, but to me Tabasco or even shallot vinegar is too much.”

The Edge
www.coastnet.org.uk/theedge | December 2009

magazine

© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

As WWF Fisheries Policy Officer Bartlett comments: “The consumer now has the power through purchasing behaviours to directly influence and improve the global marine environment by putting MSC products in their shopping basket. WWF in conjunction with CoastNet is working with fisheries in the Thames to gain certification of their fisheries, so that today’s consumers and future generations can both enjoy its seafood, safe in the knowledge that it's sustainable.” With good management and practice, the historic oyster fishery in Colchester may yet continue to prosper. A brief flick through its 2,000 year history demonstrates that our modern problems of overfishing, environmental degradation and changing culinary fashions are nothing new to the fishery. In 1566, for example, a closed season was declared to conserve stocks following a particular bad period of overfishing. And the desire for oysters has continually flip flopped in and out of fashion over the years – from cheap and common source of protein to luxurious delicacy. For centuries, generations of fishermen have understood (but not always acted upon) the basic premise that looking after their livelihood through good management principles, conservation of fish stocks and an understanding of natural environmental limits just makes sense. That is, if they want to be fishing for the next 40 years and able to hand over to subsequent generations. Sustainability is in many ways a 21st century term for that common sense, pragmatic, long term management. But it is one that hopefully, through adoption, will provide the fishing industry the necessary profits to make sustainable practice the only realistic, enduring way forward.

WWF has been working with fishing communities in China encouraging them to adopt sustainable fishing practices

LOCAL ISSUES ON A WORLD STAGE
The certification of the Tollesbury and Mersey Native Oyster Fishery with the MSC is a local project that is part of a much larger WWF initiative funded by banking giant HSBC as part of its Climate Change Partnership. The initiative focuses on increasing sustainability practices along four of the world’s largest rivers: the Amazon, Ganges, Thames and the Yangtze. And while issues may differ, the environment and socio-economic benefits of adopting sustainable fishing practices remain largely the same the world over. Liangzi Lake, situated along the Yangtze River in China, was once the exclusive realm of self-employed fishermen. With the explosion of people working in China’s freshwater fishing industry during the 1990s, large scale fish farm enterprises also began to work Liangzi Lake increasing competition to unsustainable levels. Not only conflict but environmental degradation began to increase with underwater vegetation disappearing and fish stocks depleted. WWF, along with the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been working with the commercial farms

Lesley Smeardon is editor of CoastNet’s online magazine The Edge.

WHAT’S IN A LABEL?
It’s now 10 years since The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) started independently assessing fisheries against a developed environmental standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. After successful assessment a fishery is able to attach the worldwide blue tick MSC eco-label onto their seafood which provides an easy way to help consumers support sustainable and responsible fisheries. Today, there are over 50 fisheries around the world that can carry the label on their products.

and small-scale fishermen to introduce a closed fishing season and various measures to help restore underwater vegetation and guarantee the lake’s many organisms have time to reproduce. Improvements in the lake’s environment have been notable resulting in higher yields of premium value fish which has created more jobs for fishermen and a significant increase in per capita income.

The Edge
www.coastnet.org.uk/theedge | December 2009

magazine