Cultivating oysters and scallops on the Yorkshire coast

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 April 2020

A native Yorkshire oyster

A native Yorkshire oyster


Scallops and oysters are returning to Yorkshire waters, reviving a bygone industry and bringing cheer to gourmets, as Bethan Andrews discovers

Cleethorpes was once the centre of the UK oyster tradeCleethorpes was once the centre of the UK oyster trade

More than a century ago, the Yorkshire coast and oysters were as famous as fish and chips are today.

The Humber was a centre of trade for the oyster industry, with the largest oyster fishery in the country, employing thousands of people across our county. It was commonplace to find oyster sellers outside of pubs and manning stalls along the coast.

Then disaster struck. In 1904 an outbreak of typhoid was linked back to Cleethorpes and the oysters were deemed unfit for eating.

Hundreds of acres of seafront ponds, which at their height cultivated many millions of oysters, had to be closed by their owner the Earl of Yarborough because of the contamination risk. It was a sad end to the industry.

Oyster bedsOyster beds

But today oysters and scallops are being reintroduced to the waters. The Humber Estuary is internationally important for wildlife and is a designated Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area under the Habitats Regulations. ,

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) is working to reinstate oysters, and the history that comes with them, into the Humber Estuary. The Humber Aquaculture Partnership is a collaboration between YWT and the University of Hull, aimed at developing a multi-species site including seaweed and native oysters. James Wood, YWT fisheries and research manager, heads up the project. ‘The thing about oysters is they’re one of those key species, they’re ecosystem engineers – they are a species that have a benefit,’ he explains.

‘Where you’ve got a bare patch of sand, oysteries can form naturally, fuse together and create complex reef systems that are distinct fish nursery habitats. Oysters also filter water, so each oyster will filter 240 litres a day. That takes impurities and sediment out, so it’s like having a cleaning filter.

‘If we continued to build the farm, it could have a localised impact on water quality – although, obviously, it’s not going to clean up the Humber overnight’, he adds.

Oyster farming is returning to YorkshireOyster farming is returning to Yorkshire

The project blends heritage with science and sustainability, encouraging the local community to look back at its heritage.

‘We’ve had really good engagement from everyone around Yorkshire to the project.

‘Local fishermen are obviously really interested to see if they could, in the future, scale it to a commercial scale. We’ve also got communities who can remember when there were people doing small-scale fisheries down there and who understand the role that it plays for wildlife.’

In the past many families in the area owned oyster boats and in the long term James says more jobs could be created in oyster fishing again for the local community.

‘Some of our expansion plans are to see whether we can turn this into a self-sustaining population,’ he explains.

‘We’ve done the pilot at Spurn because we own the land there. But we can see the potential of rolling this out across the Humber. We’ve proved that it works so we were able to secure more funding, bringing our second trench,’ says James.

‘We’ve got funding for more than 5,000 oysters and another 50 trestles. Each oyster fishery is very temperature reliant, so we’ll have to see how often they spawn and if it can stay within the Humber,’ adds James.

In time mussels, razor clams and seaweed may be cultivated here. Scarborough company SeaGrown Ltd has already established the first offshore seaweed farm and is now supporting a successful bid to trial the UK’s first offshore scallop farm working with YWT.

SeaGrown’s seaweed farm, has pioneered a low-impact system that only uses the top five meters of the water to grow three species of seaweed. The trial will enable SeaGrown to grow scallops and oysters underneath their seaweed. It is hoped this trial will demonstrate how these offshore farms could sustainably grow multiple species at different depths. Growing them together, rather than cultivating them separately, can promote faster growth, as they can use each other’s by-products.

The UK currently lands around 30,000 tonnes of scallops per year, the majority using controversial dredge fisheries where a heavy metal dredge and toothed bar is dragged along the sea floor to collect scallops. SeaGrown will use a system which will have minimal impact on the sea floor.

Wave Crookes at SeaGrown Ltd says: ‘This system will complement our seaweed farming to create a really neat, circular and completely natural process for offshore shellfish cultivation. Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do, so creating high quality shellfish, while giving the marine environment a boost, has got to be a good idea and we can’t wait to get started!’ 

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