Bring on the natives

Published on
September 6, 2012

It’s September, which for shellfish lovers in the United Kingdom means one thing: the start of the native oyster (Ostrea edulis) eating season.

Unlike Pacific or rock oysters (Crassostrea gigas) which are accessible all year round, natives are only available from September to April, and were once widely considered superior to the Pacific oyster for their creamy flesh and distinctive salty flavor. However, the British public has lost touch with its oyster heritage in recent decades, partly because of diminished native stocks and partly because of the market success that Pacifics have enjoyed since their introduction to the country in the 1960s. In fact, the many country-wide celebrations that herald the new oyster season now rarely use native oysters at all.

Considerably smaller than Pacific oysters, natives have a flat, round shell and according to Richard Haward of West Mersea Oysters, whose family has been cultivating oysters since the 1700s, these diminutive mollusks are often not recognized by consumers as being oysters.

“Not many people know what a native oyster is,” he told SeafoodSource. “They don’t realize there are two kinds of oysters, and they certainly query why native oysters should be more expensive than gigas.”

Haward is a seventh generation oysterman, based on Mersea Island, Essex, which is close to the ancient town of Colchester and one of the country’s best known oyster hotspots. “Colchester natives,” as the oysters are most commonly known, have been appreciated at least as far back as Roman times and since 1845 a unique annual Oyster Feast has been observing the special place that the shellfish has in Colchester’s history.

It is, though, a wonder that the native species has survived to the present day. It’s a delicate oyster that doesn’t like extreme weather conditions; it doesn’t like too much oxygen, too much cold, too much warmth or too much silt. And the new season isn’t going to be a classic one for the record books. Natives are in short supply and oyster fishermen are having to work hard to conserve stocks.

West Mersea Oysters dredges oysters from the River Blackwater and then scatters them on its own tidal oyster beds. After about three years of growing, the oysters are collected, brought ashore, washed and graded. They then spend 42 hours in UV-lit seawater tanks ahead of packing and dispatch.

In total, the company sells between 20,000 and 30,000 oysters per week, but Haward confirmed there wouldn’t be vast numbers of oysters coming out of West Mersea this year. Almost all the natives he will sell this season will go to fulfill longstanding restaurant supply agreements or be sold through his company’s stall at Borough Market in London or by his wife’s restaurant, the highly acclaimed Company Shed in West Mersea.

“We can supply customers all year round with gigas, and if they want natives we have them too, but we’re not trying to sell them elsewhere this year,” he said.

Another cause for concern is a recent outbreak of the OsHV-1 (Oyster Herpesvirus type 1) in the upper part of the Blackwater, which has caused a large mortality of some 5 million Pacific oysters in the area. Fortunately for Haward, containment was swift and stocks in the lower Blackwater have been unaffected.

He said subsequent sampling has revealed no further incidents or positive samples of the virus and that while restrictions have been relaxed in the bottom half of the river, oystermen are not allowed to move oysters from one area to another and they are currently not re-laying any Pacific oysters.

“We’ll see what the situation is like next spring. There may be a tightening up of restrictions or there may be a relaxation – we simply don’t know at this stage and until we get more evidence closer to that time there’s not a lot that can really be done.

“The virus is everywhere and it’s a worry; all of a sudden it’s erupted in so many different places around the world. We don’t know how it got here (in Essex); we know it got to Whitstable (in Kent in 2010) but we don’t know how.”

It’s doubtful whether the passage of the disease’s arrival into the country will ever be ascertained but U.K. oystermen will be all too aware of the decimation of stocks in France and most recently New Zealand.

For the time being, Haward remains positive, saying that over the course of the season there will probably be a small tightening of supplies but that stocks of Pacifics would remain “quite reasonable” throughout. “I don’t think there will be any great problems there,” he said.

In market terms, the U.K. oyster trade continues to do well with firm demand and prices and a growing popularity, despite the country’s economic frailty. The only long-term problem Haward foresees is if the industry can “resurrect the native supply” then the consumer market would need to be widened to accommodate the additional oysters.

“Expanding abroad wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but in this country we would need to re-educate the public and boost the oyster’s profile,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, you’ve got to keep the public aware of oysters. It’s not that they don’t like them; it’s that they think they won’t like them and so they won’t try them. Overcoming that sort of mindset is tough.”

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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