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A ‘good news’ story about the redevelopment of the Jersey Native Oyster (Ostrea edulis) industry in the heart of the South East coast Ramsar area. Thank you to Tony Legg, Jersey Sea Farms, who write this article.

EDIT, AUGUST 2015 – We are suffering a lot with sea lettuce and believe the use of Jersey Native Oysters is one way to help alleviate the problem. So far, as per usual, we are meeting walls of indiffernece from Ministers. See all sea lettuce posts here.

Picture: The Jersey Native Oyster, Ostrea edulis., by oyster pot
The Jersey Native Oyster, Ostrea edulis

Anyone who has walked behind Green Island cannot fail but notice straight low walls and other structures, that appear out of place in the random boulder fields and flooded gullies. The 150 year old story behind those and virtually all of the man made structures that project into the sea from the land from Greve D’Azette to Bouley Bay is due entirely to a noble mollusc, The Native Oyster Ostrea edulis.

This is not the oyster that is the current mainstay of Jersey Aquaculture; that oyster is Crassostrea gigas, an interloper from the far east, either as the Portuguese Oyster in the 16th Century (only recently identified as thSe same species) or more recently as l’huitre Creuse, or the Rock Oyster. Doug Ford from Jersey Heritage has written widely on the Jersey oyster and he reckons that between 1810 and 1871 at a conservative estimate 2,250,000,000 oysters were sold into England from Jersey.

At current wholesale values that would represent a truly staggering £2,700 million pounds. But greed and lack of basic knowledge of oyster biology, meant that the fishery was exploited beyond its means and by the end of the 1860’s it was all over.

Then in 1898 Joseph Sinel, an avid researcher into Jersey marine biology, established with a number of prominent backers the ‘Jersey Oyster Culture Company’. The company acquired leases for areas in Greve d’Azette and in the Green Island area, but the main focus of activity was the lock gated containment area to the south­east of Green Island itself. People were employed, stock sourced from France and England and production began.

Incidentally, I was reminded recently that the ‘boy to act as nightwatchman for Sinels oysters‘ in 1899 was an old gentleman, a Mr. Pirouet who lived in a cottage next to the small Green Island slipway (15m west of the main slip) who I remember clearly in the 1970’s sculling his La Rocque built heavy carvel fishing boat across La Sambue gutter to lift his pots.

The platforms that he would have spent the cold night upon, still exist. However, Joseph Sinel did not have an easy time of it, heavy storms damaged his sluice gates and wooden containers, the English customers began to reject oysters, as those reared in estuaries were causing illness and then in 1902 the Dean of Winchester died from eating a contaminated oyster (from Emsworth not Jersey) and virtually no oysters were sold in England for ten years. Consequently the company folded soon afterwards. It took another 60 years before Major Riley of Trinity Manor applied for and was granted vast areas to rear native oysters.

These areas included all of the Sinel areas and most of Grouville and St. Catherines Bay. He reportedly deposited a number of tonnes of oysters from

Remains of low oyster farm walls at Green Island jersey - societe jersiaise picture (Photo courtesy of The Société Jersiaise, Marine Biology section)
Remains of low oyster farm walls at Green Island in Jersey  (Photo courtesy of The Société Jersiaise, Marine Biology section)

Scotland in St. Catherines bay so that natural reproduction could start. The oysters promptly disappeared and he lost interest.

Bringing the story up to date, in an attempt to diversify Jersey aquaculture in the face of a damaging viral disease that is causing severe mortality in juvenile Crassostrea gigas. I tried, in 2009, a crude experiment to establish whether or not the small quantity of native oysters I had collected in the Green Island area over a number of years would be adequate to produce a small trial quantity. It worked and currently Jersey Sea Farms has some 40,000 natives almost at market size. As there was no record of how they grow here, what their production density should be, and even what they taste like, it all had to be done by guesswork.

The results have been much better than reported elsewhere. Market size is achieved in under three years whereas in Belon or Cancale it is nearer five, and the taste is superb, a subtle, smooth start with a sharpening after taste as befits the ‘King of Shellfish’ reared in its historically right ‘terroir’.

There are still challenges ahead, such as ensuring that the damaging disease Bonamia, that only affects natives and has lead to their commercial demise in many areas of Europe is truly absent and kept so by strict bio-security adherence, with commercial quantities of seed only coming from equivalent disease free areas, and to develop a new market both at home and abroad for Jersey Native Oysters.

Beyond the obvious commercial aspects, Ostrea edulis is flagship species with environmental action plans to restore old Flat Oyster beds from Scotland to Denmark, and from Spain to Greece. Recent scientific research in Stranford Loch in Northern Ireland has shown that native oyster beds dramatically increase biodiversity. Also, the OSPAR signatories (which include Jersey) are obliged to have restoration projects. Hopefully, the States of Jersey through Rural Enterprise might reconsider our debt and responsibilities towards this noble creature and assist private enterprise in its re-establishment.

Look out for the launch of Jersey Native Oysters in March 2012, and get your best Chablis ready!

The return of our native oyster
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