MEET “grandma”, a 25-year-old oyster at the centre of an ambitious plan to help improve the health of our coastal waters.
England’s first hatchery, set up by the University of Portsmouth and the Blue Marine Foundation, will provide a million oysters a year to clean up the waters of the Solent, in what used to be their richest breeding ground in Europe.
They were once so abundant that oysters were the Big Mac of the Victorian times, a dirt-cheap staple of the working-class diet. Some 3,500 sellers packed the streets of London, shucking the shells – two for a penny.
In 1911, the oyster business was employing 150,000 people.
But the boom led to the trade’s destruction due to overfishing and dredging of the seabed. Native stocks of the shellfish were also devastated by a parasite making them almost extinct in many areas around Europe, including in the Solent.
Now juvenile oysters reared in the hatchery will be released into areas closed to fishing, allowing the native oyster population to bounce back – reducing pollution and boosting biodiversity.
A single oyster is able to clean 40 gallons (200 litres) of seawater daily, reducing marine pollution levels. Oyster “reefs” also provide nursery grounds for a range of fish.
“The biggest barrier to restoration of the native oyster… is the lack of oysters,” said Dr Joanne Preston from the University of Portsmouth.
It is hoped the project will be a blueprint for other restoration projects throughout Europe.