Perhaps the most sustainable fishery in Cornwall is the Fal River oyster fishery (officially known as the Port of Truro Oyster fishery), the last oyster fishery in Europe harvested under sail by Europe’s last commercial sailing fleet. Here on the River Fal native oysters (oystera edulis) have been harvested in more or less the same, highly sustainable, fashion, without the use of mechanical power, for more than 500 years.
Oysters are thought to have been found in Cornwall since the earliest trading with the Phoenicians, and were widely grown around the coast when the Romans occupied Britain. For hundreds of years they were seen as a food for the poor who would gather the plankton-feeding bivalves from the muddy banks of creeks and rivers at low tide. In 1298 they sold for 2d (less than 1p) a gallon and were cheap in comparison with other fish
By the time Sir Richard Carew published the Survey of Cornwall in 1602, oysters were being caught using dredges “a thick strong net fastened to three spills of iron, and drawn to the boat’s stern, gathering whatsoever it meeteth lying in the bottom of the water, out of which, when it is taken up, they cull the oyster and cast away the residue, which they term gard, and serveth as a bed for the oysters to breed in.”
In Carew’s time oysters were abundant around the Cornish shoreline, now they are only found in the Fal, Percuil, Helford, Fowey and Camel rivers; the Fal has the last wild oyster beds, in the other rivers both native and Pacific oysters are re-laid and farmed. The native oyster is slow maturing, taking up to five years to grow to a marketable size, and is thought to have a far superior flavour to the faster growing Pacific oysters (crassostrea gigas also sometimes known as rock oysters).
By the 1860s a combination of disease, pollution and probably overfishing had almost destroyed these native oyster beds. This was the point at which they became a highly desirable, luxury food. Byelaws introduced by Truro Corporation in 1876 protected the Fal’s beds from over-exploitation by limiting harvesting to non-mechanical means. This means relying on wind and tide in sail-powered working boats towing the dredges across the beds in a fashion known as a drift. Many of these are historic vessels such as Tim Vinnicombe’s Boy Willie, a restored pilchard lugger driver that has been on and off the water for more than 150 years, and is used for fishing in the winter and racing in the summer. After each drift the working boats go about and start working the same narrow piece of the estuary again, adapting as the tide and wind patterns change during the day. Further up the river in the narrower and less accessible, shallow creeks, the single-handed self-propelled haul-tow punts use oars and a winch to cross the water.
The modern dredges used by these gaff cutter rigged working boats have changed little over the last 400 years; about three feet wide, these small nets with an iron bar top and bottom look like a small bag that is cast out over the stern, pulled across the river bed and hauled in over the side. They are hauled frequently as they quickly fill up with stones, mud and shells. Any oyster that is smaller than the statutory 2⅝ inches in diameter is discarded and returned to the river bed to grow on. After they have been harvested the oysters are purified before being sold, mostly out of the county, either to smart metropolitan restaurants or exported to Europe where they are highly sought after, even in France, although more than 10,000 oysters are consumed during the annual Falmouth Oyster Festival held each autumn.
The number of licences issued by the Port of Truro Harbour Authority fluctuates each year – in 2005/6 it was 38, but in 1980/81 was 151. A licence is issued for each dredge, and the sailing boats operate up to two dredges per man, with a crew of two. Haul tow punts operate a single dredge. Fishing is strictly limited to 9am to 3pm each weekday, and from 9am to 1pm on Saturdays, from October 1 to March 31. It is perhaps its inherent inefficiency and reliance on traditional methods that preserves this fishery despite growing pressures for more river moorings for leisure craft, from antifouling paints (even though banned for small craft in 1987 it is thought that some still arrives on tankers and ocean going ships that shelter in the Carrick Roads), pollution and the invasive slipper limpets.
Although the number of oystermen fluctuates annually, most have other seasonal work during the rest of the year; in a good year the fishery still provides a reasonable living for the most experienced men who are prepared to put in the time and effort in all weathers as long as the season allows. A proactive partnership between the harbour authority and the Port of Truro Oyster Fishery Management Group is working to manage and improve the nursery beds for future stocks. Nevertheless, as in the rest of the Cornish fishing industry, there are concerns about succession, the lack of young people and skills coming into the industry and that the continuity of several generations of oystermen families will be lost forever if prospects and profits do not improve.
As with sea fishing, oyster dredging is a skill that cannot be learned by rote. It is learned through years of working the water, understanding which areas suit the oysters best, and that this is a highly unpredictable species that can be surprisingly difficult to harvest. Many say that signs of healthy spatfall (young oysters) can look promising only to discover a couple of years later that adult oysters are hard to find, with no obvious explanation.
As with the rest of the Cornish fishing industry, this dilemma has social and economic implications too for the villages and support industries based around the creeks and tributaries of the River Fal. If the prospects for future oyster stocks are not good enough, this may be the last generation of oystermen working this unique, and highly sustainable, fishery on the River Fal.