Native oysters Ostrea edulis are fished in the Fal estuary in Cornwall, south west England using only traditional sailing and rowing vessels. In December I accompanied Richard Clapham on board the Falmouth working boat HollyAnne to see this fishery first-hand.

Dredges are dragged across the seabed by sail or by hand-operated winches from rowing boats. The repeated ‘tilling’ of the estuary bed pulls the oyster shells and other hard substratum out of the sediment and onto the surface. ‘Cultch’ in the form of shell debris is repeatedly laid, raising the substratum above the silt so that oyster spat have a clean surface to settle on.

One of the selling points for Fal oysters is their metallic taste—The Shellfish Association of Great Britain characterise this as “a lingering light tin and copper finish”. The Carrick Roads are impacted by past mining activities, which continue to influence the system through mine water discharges and remobilisation of contaminated sediment. Oysters have a particular capacity for accumulating copper and zinc, and Fal oysters can assume a green colour through accumulation of copper.

Oysters must also compete for food and space with invasive non-native species such as slipper limpets (Crepidula fornicata) and the non-native red seaweed Solieria chordalis. The latter has proliferated in recent years, smothering an oyster bed in the north east Carrick Roads; fishermen have only recently returned to the area after the winter storms shifted the seaweed off the banks.

New rules for protecting site features in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) mean that from October 2014, oyster and mussel dredging in the Fal can only continue under a new Regulating Order. Simon Cadnam of the Cornwall IFCA said “A new era of shellfisheries management is about to begin in the Fal. Under [the new Order] we will work closely with fishermen to make decisions which effectively manage and improve the exploitation of natural shellfisheries resources”.

Paul Ferris is the Fal Oyster Bailiff. In his view the main issues are more rules and restrictions, invasive species and water quality. He told me “On the plus side we now have a Protected Designation of Origin for our oysters which may help with marketing and better prices, and the IFCA may be able to put more into improving the fishery.”

Adding that the continued existence of the fishery is proof that the current management works, Paul said “The fishery is self-sustaining and regulating in terms of fishing effort—a kind of conservation by inefficiency”.

Richard Clapham hauls in the dredge. Oysters have been extracted in this way for well over 200 years.

How will the relationship between the fishermen and the relatively new IFCA develop? Will the present ‘light touch’ management continue or are there changes over the horizon that the fishermen will find unwelcome? Like many of the oyster fishermen, Richard Clapham has a summer job to make ends meet in the closed season. The fishery is artisanal and typical of the region, but it is also a livelihood for local people in a region where unemployment is high. Are the demands of making a living and sustainability in conflict? As in any fishing community there are different ideas of what constitutes sustainability and whilst various combinations of wind and tide tend to distribute fishing effort naturally around the estuary, some fishermen work the beds with more concern for sustainability than others.

After 4 hours on the water we have 7 kg of oysters. The dealer will pay £20, and each oyster may fetch £4 in a restaurant. Not a great day’s fishing and I wonder uneasily how much Richard would have landed had he been alone. The wind has died completely as we return to the mooring and I reflect on how the working boats, the marine life of the estuary and a local way of life have evolved together and continue to coexist while so much around them has changed.

Author

Guy Baker

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