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Sustainable Aquaculture & the Oyster Table

We recently attended the NORA conference in Edinburgh. In their own words, ‘the Native Oyster Restoration Alliance (NORA) is a European network aiming at reinforcement and restoration of the Native oyster (European flat oyster – Ostrea edulis). This was a fantastic event which we thoroughly enjoyed, and it is always inspiring to meet knowledgeable and passionate people, people who had travelled from all over the world.    

One interesting group of individuals we met are actually based quite close to home, on the Isle of Skye; they are Atlas Arts, an award winning, pioneering producer and commissioner of contemporary art.

The are currently running an interesting project called Climavore:

The aim of the project is to explore how to diversify into ecological aquaculture practices, like seaweed or bivalve farming; promote the consumption of seaweeds and bivalves amongst local residents, restaurants and tourists, as animals and plants that purify the water by breathing; and monitor the improvement of water quality along the coast of the island.

When they told us about this project, it was definitely something that resonated with us. It is undoubtedly the case, that unlike other marine aquaculture, the growing of bivalve shellfish is a sustainable form of aquaculture.

On the farm, we do not use any chemicals on our animals and we have no need to feed them, they are able to grow by simply eating the plankton in the water column. While doing this, they improve the water quality and help maintain balance in the local marine environment. All in all, what you could call a win win situation.

Yet, bivalves make up a declining proportion of world aquaculture output. Bivalves accounted for almost half of global aquaculture in the 1980s, but due to the explosion in fin fish farming now account for only around 30 percent.

This article argues that humans are making the same mistakes in water that we made on land, primarily by industrialising fin fish production. They argue that focus should be placed on plant species, but if we are to insistent on growing animals then bivalves are the most promising option:

in terms of minimising ecological harm (in some cases they may even be beneficial), minimising food security harm (as highly nutritious organisms that do not rely on outside food sources), and minimising animal welfare concerns related to captive rearing.

We do not agree with all of that article, but it does raise several substantive points that make sense to us.

Which takes us back to Atlas Arts and their Climavore project. So, other than agreeing that we share a common outlook and wishing them well, why are we writing this article? Well, it turns out that a focal point of their project is an Oyster Table.

I suppose you could call this a functional artwork because it is an actual table. It is a metal construction that is located on the foreshore close to the low water mark. The table is designed to house oysters, so that when you sit at it you can see them all around you. The Atlas Arts guys use the table as an arena where people can meet, share in food (sustainably sourced) and discuss the aims of project.

As you may have now guessed, they asked us to supply them with some native European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) to place in the oyster table. The oysters were / are not to be eaten, they are part of the art work. Their job is just to sit there, do their thing, and inspire all the guests that good things are possible!

It turned out to be a bit touch and go getting the oysters over to Skye. Unfortunately, the date of the Atlas Arts event coincided with a set of neap tides making it difficult to get out on the lines to get the full grown adult natives ashore. After a nervous wait for the tide, it finally dropped to its low point and we were able to get the oysters but a change of clothing was required afterwards.

Then a couple of hours were spent “beautifying” the oysters by stripping the barnacles (very much worth it as they look fantastic when cleaned), followed by a quick dash over to Achnasheen (40 mins drive) to hand over the oysters. Given that this was the evening before the event, the Atlas Arts folks then had to get the oysters back to Skye and had to wade out around midnight to put them back in the sea. This was needed to set up the oyster table and more importantly to make sure there was minimum stress placed on the oysters by getting them back in the sea as quickly as possible.

Atlas Arts kindly invited us to the event so the next day we decided to pop over and join in. Despite hit and miss weather it was a great day out. We had a fab meal of locally produced sustainable seafood out at the oyster table in the bay. A highlight for me was the Carrageen Seaweed pudding which is made with milk, something from the old days and that you just do not really see any more. It was also a pleasure to see our oysters at home in this quirky art work.

Slàinte mhòr à Atlas Arts.

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