While Bram piloted the boat back and forth, the lads worked the levers that lowered the dredge. We then towed it along the bottom, before the hydraulics winched it back up again. The dredge is made of nylon mesh and chainmail, and is about three feet across and a foot high. Its trap door opened to dump dozens of oysters onto a shelf on the transom. Once the oysters were safely onboard, Bram would dump the dredge overboard and resume dredging, while Josh and Sam chipped at the shells with heavy duty tools—half knife, half cleaver—to separate them, before sorting them into boxes in time to start again.
It was hard work and, while they did it, Bram chatted to me about how glad he was not to have to do it himself any more. I asked him how he knew where the oysters were. “Experience,” he said, with a shrug.
It felt a little like sheep farming, if sheep farming were conducted with a giant scoop dangling from a helicopter.
It did indeed seem a curiously random business. Since the water was beige, Bram had no idea whether the dredge would hit an oyster or not. It felt a little like sheep farming, if sheep farming were conducted through heavy cloud cover with a giant scoop dangling from a helicopter.
What the oystermen needed to do to win protection was to systematise this process. They needed to go out onto the open grounds, where the oysters live free and unprotected, and map them. They would have to show the environmentalists their secrets, and possibly risk their entire livelihood.
It would be a treasure map with a giant ‘X’ marking the spot of every hidden cache of shellfish loot.
But finding out how many oysters there are, and where they live, was going to be hard. Allison proved this point by showing me a video she had made while diving offshore. Visibility was somewhere between six inches and a foot. Even when they found an oyster, they had no idea where they were, since they had no way to orientate themselves in the muddy water.
Their plan instead was to dredge methodically from a boat, recording exactly where they found oysters. Such a map, if it leaked out, could allow anyone to hoover up every native oyster down there. It would be a treasure map with a giant letter X marking the spot of every hidden cache of shellfish loot.
“There is nothing to say that someone can’t come in and take the oysters. This report going to government has gone through confidentiality clauses to stop that information getting out,” said Allison, in a spicy Newcastle accent that is just beginning to pick up the broader tones of her adopted Essex.
Together, they scoured the public grounds, using a dredge with far smaller mesh than normal, so they caught the juvenile oysters as well as those big enough to eat, measured them, then threw them back. Every evening, Allison collated her data, typing all these numbers – the length of the oysters in millimetres — into a database to get a sense of what is down there, how many of the little tiddlers below 50mm, and how many ready to be eaten, up above that size.
“You write down all the numbers and you don’t think about what you’re doing because there are hundreds of oysters. But one evening I was working at home and I asked my husband to call the numbers while I typed them out. He said it was like a game of 60s and 70s and that was when I realized it was serious,” she said. Almost every oyster was between 60 and 80mm long. There were no babies.
It was a catastrophe. No one had seen it coming, and no one had any idea why it was happening.
If ordinary fishing continued, the adult oysters would be scooped up, and there would be no new generation to grow up and take their place. This rare healthy population of native oysters was not healthy at all. They told the local fishing authority, which immediately closed all fishing.
As of now, Colchester Natives are off the menu.
“We came across this by accident. We pre-empted a crash by about two years,” said Allison.
So, the fishing beds are closed. Haward and the other oystermen groom the beds, dragging chains behind their boats to try to clear silt off the oysters, but as of now Colchester Natives are off the menu.
So, what was I eating that lunchtime at the Company Shed, and what was Bram dredging off the seabed? Well, among the many pests natives have to deal with is an entirely separate kind of oyster. Worried by the collapse in the 1970s, officials experimented with foreign species, eventually picking on Pacific Rock Oysters—Crassostrea gigas—as an acceptable substitute. At first, these had to be brought in as youngsters, and just fattened up in British waters, but they have rather taken to life here, and escaped from captivity. They are vigorous and are now serious rivals for the role of oyster in British waters. Unlike natives, which have a flat shell slightly like that of a small scallop, these rock oysters are as jagged as their name suggests.
The rock oysters Bram scooped off the bottom of Brightlingsea Harbour had grown in such profusion that they were starting to harm boats coming in and out. Britain harvested five times more rock oysters than natives in 2011, and that ratio is unlikely to come down again any time soon.
And this puts the environmentalists in a tricky position. They want to restore natives, and prevent an invasive species coming in and taking their environmental niche, but they also want to keep the oystermen working so they can afford to keep the natives alive.
“We need to maintain oysters in people’s minds as a food, as an aspirational thing, because that is what props up the industry to do the restoration. We need that or we are knackered,” said Allison.
It’s a tricky compromise to have to make, but really there is only one course open to us as consumers. The task ahead is a tough one but I hope that you are prepared, as I am, to do your bit for the future of this species. You may not like to hear it, but next time you’re anywhere near Essex, you’ll just have to go out to the Company Shed and eat oysters, then go back and do it again. It’s for their own good, after all.