Ocean superheroes: the race to restore oysters to Britain's coast

The humble oyster is on the brink of extinction around the British coastline.

“We like to think of oysters as little super-heroes of the sea. Although they’re small in size, they’re capable of making some huge changes in our marine environment.”

Conservationist Celine Gamble is trying to restore the dwindling population and clean up the UK’s coastal waters at the same time.

“The European native oyster has declined by 95% over the past 150 years. That’s due to over-fishing, pollution, habitat loss and disease. So now we’re working with a really reduced population and we’ve got a really exciting opportunity to try and restore the species back.”

The 27-year-old zoologist manages The Wild Oyster Project, which has installed nearly 4,000 native oysters in specially designed ‘nurseries.’

The endangered animals are suspended in the water underneath pontoons in three locations around the UK to encourage them to reproduce and release millions of baby oysters, known as larvae, into the ocean.

Why? Well for one - water filtering.

“A single oyster can filter around 200 litres of water a day so when you bring back the numbers that we’re hoping to you’ve got an eco-system that can powerfully improve our coastal water quality. And when they actually filter the water they can also filter out chemicals, for example nitrates and phosphates, which at high levels can be harmful.”

The second benefit is boosting biodiversity.

“When you successfully restore native oyster habitat you’ve got thousands of oysters coming together to form a biogenic reef. At that stage that’s when other marine wildlife interact with those nursery areas and it becomes a bit of a nursery area for fish species that we know and are very familiar with, for example seabass or seabream. So we’ve actually found some really cool species in our nurseries including the European eel, spiny seahorses, previously in other areas. So we know that it’s a kind of magnet for other marine wildlife because the oysters themselves attract the associated biodiversity which is really exciting.”

Gamble’s fascination for the shellfish began when she was learning to dive while studying conservation and biodiversity.

The three-year-long Wild Oyster Project plans to install a total of 141 wire cage nurseries underneath marina pontoons across Wales, the north east of England, and Scotland.

Gamble hopes the initiative will extend beyond that.

“We’re hoping that this is just the start and the aim of our project is to try and inspire other locations around the UK to try and do the same which then will start to see more and more oysters in the system which will contribute to their restoration.”