Galway Bay community aims to save the native oyster

Clarenbridge Oyster Festival to host workshop to discuss ways to stem decline

Oysters were  the first ‘fast food’ of the industrial revolution. Photograph: BIM

Oysters were the first ‘fast food’ of the industrial revolution. Photograph: BIM


Seamus Heaney paid homage to them, Roman emperors gorged on them and few myths have survived better than the purported link between aphrodisiacs and European flat oysters.

However, the native stock of the shellfish, Ostrea edulis, is in such a fragile state that its annual production is now a fraction of the Pacific oysters or gigas, which was introduced for culture here in the 1970s.

A new community-based organisation, Cuan Beo, which was formed to improve the quality of environment, economy and heritage around Galway Bay, is hosting a workshop on the native oyster at this year’s Clarenbridge Oyster Festival.

Cuan Beo chairman Diarmuid Kelly said there was growing concern among the shellfish-fishery community and State agencies charged with its management and protection.

Prof Noel Wilkins of NUI Galway has recorded that oysters were once so abundant in almost every bay and many offshore banks that they were believed to be inexhaustible –and were the first “fast food” of the industrial revolution.

Sites for wild oysters dwindled by the late 20th century to Galway Bay, Tralee Bay in Co Kerry, Achill in Co Mayo and loughs Swilly and Foyle in the northeast.

Now annual production of the Ostrea edulis is about 400 tonnes, compared to 9,000 tonnes for Pacific oysters, Mr Kelly says. Pollution levels, habitat loss and demise in water quality over the past 20 years have all affected the native species.

‘Keystone species’

Mr Kelly says it is a “keystone species” in the marine ecosystem, and creates a physical habitat for other fauna, supporting high biodiversity. EU legislation protects it, but the absence of a “complete understanding” in Galway of the complex chemical, physical and biological interactions in the inner Galway Bay and its riverine catchment area have left the historic fishery in a “fragile ecological position”, he says.

Issues relating to licensing and governance have also been contributory factors, he says. However, research has shown that restoration is possible, and Cuan Beo hopes to initiate a nationwide movement to support and develop the resource.

The one-day seminar at the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival marquee on Thursday will hear about the native oyster’s history and significance from Prof Wilkins, and other speakers will include Dr Oliver Tully and colleagues from the Marine Institute.