It's the end of the Native Oyster season - what happens next?
Yesterday marked the official end of the native oyster season so that means we will be busy between now and September. The Colchester native oyster is unique and there is no other oyster like it in the world. It is extremely hard to cultivate and increase stock levels. That’s why, the period between April and September is crucial in the survival of natives.
Native oysters need a lot of care and attention in order to survive due to their fragility. The key to keeping native oyster stocks healthy is to catch them and relay them in a different area. This is because if an oyster is dredged in the deeper water of the river, you won’t have a healthy or consistent meat inside it. You need to move it to the creeks so they can get the right nutrients and food from the marshes. It’s the marshes that make the Colchester oyster taste so unique.
To have a good, healthy stock of native oysters, you must catch them from the river in late April, for them to be relayed on the oyster beds. This will give the oyster 5-6 months to grow, adapt to the environment and be better quality, including a fatter meat inside. Moving them is so important for their continued survival. This is because when a native is born, its first thought is to die. If they are kept in one place, they will not learn to adapt to surviving in different water temperatures and sharing the space to get the right food they need. However, you can’t put gigas and natives together as the gigas is much stronger and will dominate the oyster bed, meaning the native would die.
Richard Haward’s Oysters is part of the ENORI (Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative) project. Native oysters were once the ‘king’ of oysters, but as stocks depleted, gigas rose in popularity, particularly because they’re more likely to survive when they have been moved. However, with the continued work on restoring the native oyster to its former glory, more people are becoming educated on them and enjoy the flavour more than a gigas. Natives have more of a metallic taste because of the high amount of zinc and magnesium - they’re excellent for a hangover!
Despite all the work that is being done surrounding native oysters, the threat to stock levels don’t go away. They’re at risk of catching a disease called bonamia. Bonamia is a disease that lives in the mud and the native oyster is at risk of catching it when it filters the water and it kills the oyster before it reaches maturity. Maturity is usually reached around 3-4 years.
So what are we doing to ensure we continue to have a healthy stock of the thing that made Mersea famous? We’re trying something new this year. We’re storing our native oysters in in a raft with pods. This is because when you relay oysters in the creeks, they can get lost in the mud and either missed by the dredge, or destroyed as the shells are so delicate. The pods will be submersed in water and then every oyster caught will be relaid up Salcott (which is where we have 14 acres of oyster beds). We will be able to reduce to risk of disease here and keep a better inventory of stock levels. We did relay 3 tonnes of native oysters last season, but we saw a high rate of mortality, so as a business, it’s always good to try new methods and things are always evolving, and we’re always looking for ways to improve the business for our customers.
If you would like to learn more about oysters and the Haward family history, you can book a private shucking masterclass with eighth generation oystermen, Tom and Bram. Included in this is a tour of Salcott creek, a shucking masterclass, a seafood platter for lunch, prosecco, and of course, some oysters to take away with you. It’s a fantastic day out and it’s something we really enjoy as it means educating people on oysters and how to handle them properly.
Our gigas oysters and clams are still available on our website for you to enjoy over the summer, and we have our retail unit at Borough Market.