Our research highlighting Essex as a stronghold for the European native oyster was pivotal in the Blackwater, Crouch, Roach and Colne estuaries being designated a Marine Conservation Zone in 2013.
Here, Dr Tom Cameron, from our School of Life Sciences, explains how scientists at Essex are working alongside oystermen in a conservation coalition to protect the future of the native oyster and boost its numbers.
It is a fundamental misunderstanding that conservation is about animals and plants. Putting aside whether it would exist at all if there were a fewer of us - conservation is about people.
Ecology in all its forms - from the study of genes through behaviour to ecosystems - remains the foundation of knowledge on which sound conservation needs to be based. However, time and again, we see good ideas to support the natural world fail to materialise. This is because those ideas – or those trying to implement them – have omitted to ask people who will be affected by, live with or depend on those elements of the natural world what they think.
Listening to and engaging with others is a key conservation skill. But it’s not as simple as that. Gathering information from stakeholders can be useful in finding out what people want or need. However, gathering information in surveys forgets about the power of misinformation and the role of building relationships with people. Building these friendships helps to break through the strongholds that worldviews can have on all stakeholders in their approaches to conservation.
Building relationships matters. It should never be taken for granted that academic views will be taken seriously. Take UK fishers and families and how they frame what is best for their futures, or indeed who to blame for their past misfortunes: it is clear that academic papers, blogs, articles and histories on fishery socio-economics have not prevented the dominant narrative that someone else is stealing all the fish.
Research and action is thus more than surveys and gathering information; it is building stakeholder relationships. One of the unsung heroes of the conservation world – sitting alongside the reintroduction and recovery of the red kite, or the contemporary (re)expansion of the pine marten or protection of great crested newts - is the European native oyster Ostrea edulis.
This gorgeous shelled animal has declined by over 90% of its range in Europe alone – globally possibly more now we know its cousins on other continents are likely the one and same ancient shellfish. In the UK and its surrounding seas we have experienced large population loss, including the 20km long oyster bed in the Firth of Forth in Scotland, and the species becoming unknown in the Severn and Humber. It has become only patchy in the wider Thames.
On some fronts this species is in dire straits – it is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list and as important to “preserve” as the panda. But it is also, as suggested, a major success as it has responded well to active conservation intervention and is now recovering in one or two locations. What is unique is that this story does not start with conservationists – but with oystermen.
The utilitarian model of conservation is not new. The most controversial but well-known example is the hunting of charismatic animals. The income from hunting of a small number of animals is said to be justified due to the greater good of sensitive land management allowing larger populations of wild animals to thrive. And so it is with the native oyster – as the place where this species is thriving best on the seabed appears to be where it remains to be fished and cultured by oystermen cooperatives in their own “protected” areas.
Starting at this point – with an approach by oystermen to conservationists at the Essex Wildlife Trust and biologists at the University of Essex – so began a journey of what I call “inreach”. Academia has for years spoken of “outreach” as a way to get out in the community and spread the message. Outreach is important – and it can lead to changing perceptions about interactions with wildlife and nature as it is currently on soil management, lead hunting ammunition and sustainability of some fishing practices – but it is through engaging with oystermen in a bid to listen and learn from their success and failures that my understanding of the native oyster and my own research has improved.
Inreach then – listening, learning and building friendships – first led Essex Wildlife Trust and the University to work with pioneering oystermen communities to document the remaining strongholds of native oysters in the Essex public waters. This led to the creation in 2013 of the first large inshore Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) protected largely for native oysters and the habitats it creates – the Blackwater Crouch, Roach and Colne MCZ. More firsts have followed since then through the formation of the multi-partner Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative (ENORI) – all from taking a step back and learning how and why oystermen apply management to the sea floor, when has it worked and when has it failed.
Since then we at the School of Life Sciences have found that their active intervention maintains high population growth of native oysters. ENORI and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities developed new policy and management plans, began an innovative large scale marine restoration experiment to find out why intervention matters and which interventions are best, determined what benefits to other species oyster recovery can bring, and showed what range of contemporary issues pose most threat to the recovery of native oysters in Essex.
This is not to say that all oyster fishing, farming or oystermen themselves are perfect or there are not truths to be spoken on behalf of the seabed. But it is an opportunity to say thanks for allowing us to listen and learn, for inviting us into your communities and for the chance to study the charismatic Colchester oyster.
Footnote: “In this article, I use the term oystermen to refer to both men and women who engage in oyster fishing and active marine management of the estuaries. This is the term used locally.”