Living in a county which is surrounded by water, the Cornish love to celebrate the gift of the sea and the treasures that lay beneath the waves. This weekend in Falmouth, one of Cornwall’s most popular festivals is well under way. The Fal Oyster Festival is in its 21st year and is now a 3-day spectacular celebrating everything about the mollusc.
Oysters are important to the county and have been fished in the Fal Estuary and Carrick Roads for thousands of years. But what makes oyster fishing here so unique, is how the oysters are collected. In fact, thanks to ancient laws which are still imposed in the area, this is the only place in Europe (potentially the world) where oysters are fished via such traditional methods. Here, in order to dredge oysters, you must only do so using sail and hand-pulled dredges. Many fishermen use the Falmouth Working Boats, a particular style of boat up to 30ft long with an original cutter gig. The working boats are still built in local boatyards, although some fishermen actually sail boats built as early as 1860, still used for their original purpose. Fishing in such a manner requires skill and knowledge of the water, as tide and wind are relied upon to secure the catch.
This unique method of fishing helps to protect the sea beds and the oyster stocks, with laws in place to ensure populations are caught sustainably. But this isn’t the only restriction imposed to help protect the species, Ostrea edulis, found in this area. Oyster season is 1st October – 31st March, ensuring they have the other 6 months to grow and reproduce. Oysters are all born male, however at around 10 months they reach maturity and at this stage they can change their sex on a regular basis, depending on the surrounding temperatures. Warmer temperatures mean more breeding, so fishing is prohibited during the spring and summer months to allow the creatures to go nuts, with a female producing millions of eggs each time she is fertilised and potentially releasing 100 million eggs into the water column ever year . There is actually an old saying that you should only eat oysters during the months that have an ‘R’ in the name, thus giving the species time to ‘spat’ (breed). There is also a size restriction; anything smaller that 67mm must be thrown back in order to give the animal time to mature past breeding stage.
But despite this adage, the rules haven’t always been followed. Oysters were over harvested in Cornwall in the 19th century, causing a big depletion to their stocks. The addition of the slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata), introduced around the same time, hasn’t helped either. This invasive species has caused issues in oyster and mussel beds as it competes for space and food. Thankfully today, all the hard work has meant that oyster stocks are doing better, which is great for Cornwall as they are such an integral part of daily life here. Of course, oysters are now seen as a delicacy, famous for their ‘aphrodisiac’ qualities, and those caught on the Cornish beds are hailed as some of the best in the world.
So this weekend sees the celebration of this humble shellfish. And whilst there may be cookery demonstrations, music, drinking, singing and racing, take a minute to consider the fishermen who do the backbreaking work to collect them and to the oysters themselves; a species which has helped to sustain a community since the Roman times.