Seafood lovers are being invited to help play their part in safeguarding the UK’s critically important indigenous oyster beds by asking for native oysters when they dine out. The call comes as the native oyster season officially opens tomorrow, Friday 1st September.
Scotland’s only native oyster boat, The Vital Spark crewed by local fishermen Rab Lamont and John Mills, will then be in a race against time to harvest the thousands of Loch Ryan native oysters needed ahead of Stranraer Oyster Festival later this month.
The Loch Ryan oyster bed is one of the most important native oyster beds in Europe. It’s the last wild native oyster fishery in Scotland, and the bed has been protected by Royal Charter since 1701. Native oysters help marine ecosystems by providing important habitat for coastal wildlife. With almost all of the UK’s native oyster beds overfished to near-extinction in previous centuries, the oysters from Loch Ryan are now being used to help ‘re- seed’ native oyster restoration projects across the UK and in Germany.
Tristan Hugh-Jones of Loch Ryan Oyster Fishery said members of the public can support native oyster bed restoration by specifically asking for native oysters in restaurants. He said:
“We know that native oysters are important in marine ecosystems. In fact, right across Europe, there’s a huge amount of interest in the restoration of native oyster beds, but to do that sustainably we need to be able to sell them. Which means we need the public to ask for native oysters specifically.
“The more people eat and enjoy natives, the more they’ll support native oyster breeding and growing. It really is that simple. Stranraer Oyster Festival has done an incredible job of shining a spotlight on the ecological treasure that lies beneath the water of Loch Ryan – and demand for Loch Ryan natives is soaring.
“We’ve already seen Loch Ryan native oyster numbers grow from 1 million to 60 million over the past 30 years, which is an incredible turnaround for the species.
“Our goal is to increase the number of oysters in the loch to 100 million by 2040. We think it’s achievable, and the more demand there is, the more hands-on management of the bed we will be able to carry out to nurture that growth.”
Native oysters, Ostrea edulis, are famously only available in months that contain the letter ‘R’ (1st September to 30th April). Beds are left undisturbed during the important summer breeding months to allow the oyster larvae – spats – to be fertilised and settle.
Native oysters are distinct from the more commonly found ‘farmed’ rock oysters, being slower to grow with a flatter shell and a more refined flavour.
A healthy native oyster bed requires the oysters to be densely distributed. When an oyster is physically close to its neighbour, it fertilises the offspring well. Sustainable management of Loch Ryan oyster bed involves harvesting only the largest oysters, then returning 95% of each ‘catch’ back to a densely laid, well-marked area of the loch to maximise oyster fertility.
This year Stranraer Oyster Festival has also committed to playing its part in growing the wild, native oyster population. Festival organisers have pledged to return the shell of every oyster consumed at the festival back to Loch Ryan to provide more ‘shell’ material on the floor of the loch for young oysters to stick to.
Allana Hardie of Stranraer Development Trust, the community organisation that runs the festival, explained how this one measure will reduce the environmental footprint:
“Collecting back the oyster shells to return them to Loch Ryan has so many benefits. It reduces waste from the festival, it will create valuable shell habitat for young oysters which will help the oyster bed grow, and it will naturally sequester the carbon that’s embodied in the oyster shells.”
Taking place on 15th-17th September, the festival programme includes demonstrations and events by celebrity chefs Michael Caines, Tony Singh, Julie Lin and Felicity Cloaks among the chefs travelling to Stranraer.
The Scottish Oyster Shucking Championships takes place on Saturday 16th September, and will see chefs, oyster growers, producers, fishermen and industry professionals pitting themselves against each other in a bid to claim the title of Scottish Oyster Shucking Champion! The winner will go on to represent Scotland at the World Oyster Opening Championships in Galway, Ireland in late September.
The event will also see live music, extreme pond dipping, an artisan market, children’s entertainment, and a massive oyster bar. This year an evening pyrotechnic aerobatic display is set to wow the crowds with illuminated night displays over Loch Ryan on the evenings of Friday 15th and Saturday 16th September.
Stranraer Oyster Festival was launched in 2017 by community organisation Stranraer Development Trust to mitigate the deeply damaging economic impact of the moving of the ferries from Stranraer formerly the main ferry port for Northern Ireland to nearby Cairnryan in 2011.
Recent independent economic analysis demonstrated that the festival has generated almost £5 million for the local economy so far, supporting hundreds of jobs, showcasing multiple local businesses and organisations, providing volunteering and training opportunities for members of the community, and stimulating tourism development in the area.
Romano Petrucci, Chair of Stranraer Development Trust, says the importance of the festival to the town cannot be overstated.
“Stranraer Oyster Festival has become a hugely important part of the town’s identity, and a real focus for showcasing the very best that Stranraer and the wider Galloway area has to offer visitors.”
Former professional footballer Allan Jenkins heads up the team organising the major event in his home town of Stranraer. He said:
“This is such an important event for the whole community. We can’t wait to welcome people to our beautiful town to celebrate some amazing local produce.”
About Stranraer Oyster Festival
Stranraer Oyster Festival takes place from Friday 15th to Sunday 17th September in Stranraer, south west Scotland. Tickets cost £6 per day or £12 for the full three-day event for over 12s, with concessions available. Additional charges apply for selected chef demonstrations.
More information and ticket booking can be found at www.stranraeroysterfestival.com