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Oysters and the Firth of Forth - Part 3 (Extinction & Rebirth)

A Wee Recap

As covered previously, the oyster beds in Firth of Forth covered an extensive area of approximately 166 km², thus making them arguably the largest European Flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) beds in the world.

Historical records indicate that oysters were abundant in the Forth during the 13th century and they were relatively inexpensive. However, as demand increased in the 16th century, commercial exploitation began, with significant exports to foreign markets such as England and The Netherlands being recorded.

At this point, the first warning signs over what was to occur became apparent. In the 1660s, the Town Council of Edinburgh prohibited fishing and sales to other European countries in an effort to protect the beds. Similar regulations were enacted in 1742, but compliance was short-lived, and previous practices resumed and at even greater intensity.

Then the ‘Industrial Revolution’ arrived and this marked the beginning of the end for the Firth of Forth oyster beds. We shall briefly explore these sad developments further in this article.

Before we go further much of the information presented here has been taken from these excellent sources, which we highly recommend if you would like to read further:

2020, Asa James Swan, Twilight of Newhaven: The Transformation of an Ancient Fishing Village into a Modern Neighbourhood  

1873, James Bertram, Harvest of the Sea

2007, David Donnan — Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No.251 - Conservation of the Native Oyster Ostrea edulis in Scotland 

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century and early 19th century and signalled a move from a largely agricultural economy to an industrial economy based around manufacturing and mechanisation.

In summary:

“Production efficiency improved during the Industrial Revolution with inventions such as the steam engine. The steam engine dramatically reduced the time it took to manufacture products. More efficient production subsequently reduced prices for products, primarily due to lower labour costs, opening the marketing doors to a new level of customers. ”

This led to the growth of a middle class and increased demand for consumer products of all kinds. In addition, technological innovation also delivered the means to transport these goods, the railway. This development super charged economic growth.

Steam Train

In terms of the Firth of Forth oyster fishery, and all other fisheries, there was a huge up-spike in demand, new steam powered technology to help exploit the resource and a highly efficient steam powered logistics network to aid in distribution.

In reflection, and there are real lessons here for people of today, the outcome was somewhat and sadly predictable.

Boom and Bust

The first beds to become depleted were those exploited by fishermen from Fisherrow, Cockenzie, and Prestonpans, collectively known as the "East Country" fishermen. By the 1780s, these fishermen were landing approximately 18 million oysters per season, primarily exporting juvenile oysters to English and Dutch markets.

In 1786, they exhausted the public and leased beds they regularly fished and were reported to be unlawfully exploiting oysters from the City beds. Legal proceedings confirmed the titles and rights for different sections of the oyster beds. Regulations from 1742 were reiterated in 1788, and a minimum landing size was imposed to regulate the exportation of juvenile oysters.

The City of Edinburgh owned one of the most valuable fisheries, which had been leased by Newhaven fishermen, although this was the subject of legal dispute between the two parties. The Newhaven fishers were responsible for exporting large quantities of oysters to foreign markets.

During its peak years, the Newhaven fishery stood out with impressive annual landings. The records show varying amounts of oysters scalped annually, but the general consensus is that during the 1750-1900 time period, Newhaven fishermen harvested between 20 and 30 million oysters every year, From 1834 to 1836, the fishery yielded a remarkable total of 59.8 million oysters valued at £12,579 (approximately £1.2 million / $1.5 million US today). Although it questionable if the fisher folk saw much of this money as we know they lived a precarious existence and often struggled to make ends meet.

However, as time went on, the landings from the Newhaven fishery experienced a substantial decrease. Official records from the Fishery Board for Scotland revealed a significant decline. In the 1874-75 season, only 815,850 oysters were recorded in the Newhaven district. This number dropped further to 55,140 oysters by 1882-1883, and there were no recorded landings in the following season.

Despite occasional efforts to regulate and protect the beds during the 19th century, such as the withdrawal of fishing rights by the Duke of Buccleuch and the application of Mussel Fishery Orders, unlawful exploitation and poor management persisted. By the 1870s, the various beds were nearing exhaustion, and the last of the Forth oyster fisheries ceased in 1920. Subsequent surveys conducted in 1957 and 1996 confirmed the extinction of the Forth oyster population.

Environmental Damage – There’s Nae Fish Oot There!

The primary source of the decline of the Firth of Forth oyster beds has been attributed to a combination of excessive fishing, a lack of effective management policies, and the consequent depletion of oyster stocks over time.

All of this is undoubtedly true but there is also another factor that has to be taken into account and that is damage of the ecosystem. This is a key by product of industrialisation, and one that has become hugely apparent to us at this time in history.

The Firth of Forth was no exception and a horrid example of this was that before construction of the Seafield wastewater treatment plant in 1978 (yes only 1978!) all of the city of Edinburgh’s untreated sewage was pumped directly into the Firth.

Industrial Plant

This pollution was made worse by the rapid population growth and the expansion of industrial sites along the Forth's tributaries. Sewage, along with chemicals from textile factories, chlorine from paper mills, coal washing run off all contributed to the degradation of the Firth's water quality since the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

It was noted that the sewage created swarms of bacteria that depleted the oxygen in the water, resulting in the death of marine life below the water's surface. The industrial waste from factories, along with agricultural run off containing phosphates used in fertilizers, created a toxic stew that further poisoned the Firth. The pollution left a slimy film on the water's surface, rendering it uninhabitable for shellfish and other swimming fish.

This is the background against which the exploitation of the beds was happening. All the time the population was being hit hard, the supporting ecosystem was also being poisoned and destroyed.

This is a deadly combination as it is widely known that shellfish exhibit fluctuation is recruitment (population spawning and growth of new baby shellfish) year on year. So a heavily exploited population (a weakening population) where the ability to regenerate is significantly degraded, combined with natural reproductive fluctuation and a local ecosystem that is being poisoned and destroyed gave the most despairing (and in hindsight predictable?) outcome… EXTINCTION.

A Short Aside

Incidentally, this also generates one of the key challenges for the restoration of extinct oyster populations. It is not simply a case of replacing oysters in the (now hopefully cleaned up) ecosystem, experience has shown that this just does not work.

Oysters are habitat builders, that is why they are such a powerful marine organism, they create a world and chance of life for themselves and lots of other species. However, if they are completely removed from the system all of the building blocks / scaffolding they created over millennia go with them. They are replaced and in the case of the Firth of Forth it is more than likely the host sediments have been altered (and not in good ways) by all the pollution and dead organic matter.

This means just putting oysters back is not enough. They need help and any restoration project worth its salt shall have to include a way to provide some sort of medium to allow the oysters to get a foothold and start doing their thing!

Making A Difference

Thankfully in the last number of years, due to EU legislation, the water quality of the Firth of Forth has improved significantly but sadly there are still no oysters.

This is where the project #forthrestoration comes in:

“Restoration Forth is a major marine restoration programme working with communities to restore seagrass habitats and native oyster populations in the Firth of Forth. 

Restoration Forth will create a toolkit for marine restoration- inspiring communities in delivering further marine restoration efforts across Scotland, securing by 2030 at least 42 hectares of critical coastal habitat restored in the Firth of Forth, and influencing Scottish Government policy for stronger marine protection.  ”

And our role?

Well look at these:

Native European Flat Oyster shell growth

These guys and girls are part of the cohort we have been growing for the Forth restoration project. They shall be the pioneers, the first of their kind to be back in the Firth of Forth since perhaps 1957. The first step in the process of recovery. 

After all these years, the wee Native has become so important to us. In fact, working on helping to restore them is the reason we grow oysters, so so rewarding and such a positive space to operate within.



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