It’s the end of July, and a gorgeous morning in Argyll and a crowd of us, of all ages, are gathered around polystyrene boxes on the beach at Loch Craignish, Argyll. There’s a triumphant, expectant mood. A drone whirrs overhead, camera’s snap, and we’re off – loading the boxes into two boats, and heading out with our precious, much-talked-about cargo, into the calm waters of the Loch.
Inside the boxes are 60,000 juvenile native oysters, delivered that morning by Royal Mail, from a Morecambe Bay hatchery. They’re about 8 months old, each the size of a thumbnail, and they’re going to be loaded into rafts of floating baskets secured to a 170 metre longline anchored in a sheltered bay.
We have to move quickly as the oysters have been out of the water for nearly 24 hours, and at 4 pence each, we can’t to afford to lose any of the precious stock. The kids on the boat are eager to help. Amid squeals of excitement as sucker fish, star fish and sea lice come up with the cages, we fill each of the baskets with approximately 500 oysters and drop the cages back in the water. Meanwhile, from the bow of the boat, a movie camera from Scotland, The Big Picture, films this milestone moment. Finally, after two years of development, Scotland’s first community-led marine habitat restoration project is getting under way.
Over the next five years, we plan to grow up to 1 million baby native oysters in floating baskets, and when they’re 50p size we’ll introduce them to the seabed to restore the oyster reefs that were once prevalent in Loch Craignish. Oysters are eco-system engineers, filtering and cleaning the water, and building complex reefs that become fish spawning grounds and nurseries, and havens for biodiversity.
In mid-august, local divers and snorkellers will survey the seabed to look for safe, suitable places for our oyster restoration, and next spring, with the help of our academic partners from SAMS and Stirling University we’ll start to recreate the reefs. Meanwhile, we’ll be taking in another 100,000 juvenile oysters soon, all of which need monitoring, grading and keeping predator-free.
It’s been two years of development to get to this stage. Fortunately, we now have a National Lottery Grant covering the costs. It would have been impossible otherwise. For all that the Scottish Government promotes healthy seas, practical marine conservation is hard. It’s a long slog getting the permissions and licences, and the tortuous bureaucratic process is almost designed to put off the faint-hearted. But now that our oysters are going in the water, we’re in a good position to help other communities wanting to do the same. The problem is there’s too much talk about marine conservation – we need to get on and do it. We need more habitat restoration projects, more No Take Zones, and a Three Mile Limit to keep out destructive bottom dredging and bottom trawling. The health of our seas and future coastal fishing jobs depend on it. Moreover, it would be a huge achievement to get the unprotected Loch Craignish designated as a Marine Protected Area for community-led habitat restoration and regenerative aquaculture. It’s an exciting prospect! Maybe scallop ranching and seaweed next?