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Muddy Waters: Britain’s oyster industry on the brink

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

7 min read

Battling against sewage spills, Britain’s heritage oyster industry is struggling to survive. Lucy Kehoe reports.

“We’ve been growing oysters for over 300 years, for eight generations. That could all be wiped out, quite easily,” says Tom Haward. The Essex-based owner of family-run shellfish business Richard Haward’s Oysters is anxious about the future of England’s centuries-old oyster industry, which – without immediate improvement to coastal water quality or financial support for struggling fishers – may face extinction.

A battle has been raging for several years now over water companies dumping raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas. In March, the Environment Agency (EA) found water companies legally dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and coastal areas an average of 825 times a day throughout 2022. A recent BBC investigation found three water companies had illegally discharged wastewater hundreds of times in the same period. The rolling fury against water companies has largely been fuelled by outrage at the state of bathing waters in coastal and river regions, but for the oyster industry, which is reliant on clean coastal and estuarine waters, the impact of the dumping is devasting.

People using waters for leisure activities can go and swim on a different beach - I can’t move my farm

“Fishers are right in what they say that there’s been a lot of focus on bathing and leisure activities, massively important as those are,” says Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for the coastal constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale. “But the shellfish industry has been hugely damaged by the very bad deal that the UK Tory government got with Europe, post-Brexit, so they need all the help they can get, and [the sewage crisis is] only making things worse.”

The United Kingdom’s sewage infrastructure is reliant on combined overflow systems, which drains rainwater and sewage through the same pipes to sewage treatment plants. When overwhelmed – such as during heavy rainfall – the overflows discharge excess wastewater into rivers and coastal regions. Limited investment in sewage infrastructure has exacerbated the overflows, something variously blamed on the privatisation of the UK water industries, water company negligence, and long-standing, cross-party failure to address nationwide infrastructure upgrades.

Oysters are relatively easy to farm and naturally filter pollutants from the water. However, it’s a benefit that doubles as a curse as oysters are prone to carry the pathogens and pollutants they remove from water, like E. coli and norovirus.

In July 2021, over 100 people were reported to have fallen ill with gastroenteritis after eating oysters farmed in Whitstable, following five hours of storm overflow discharges in local waters over a 24-hour period. The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company – the largest producers of oysters in the town – was told to halt harvesting and the Hong Kong export market closed its doors to its shellfish in response to the incident. Only reinstating permission to export this year, the company’s director James Green estimates he lost around £200,000 of sales as a result.

Water quality will improve over the next five to 10 years, but it’s a case of whether an industry like mine can survive that long

“People using waters for leisure activities can go and swim on a different beach,” said Green. “The issue for my industry is that I can’t move my farm. So, if the water quality isn’t good, it has a massive impact on my cash flow.”

Since the 2021 incident, Green has installed a filtration tank system, a grant-funded project which cost £150,000. The system allows him to “clean” harvested oysters if water quality is poor. However, if the water quality drops below a certain level, harvesting can still be halted. In May this year, dangerously high E. coli levels in 11 shellfish production zones in Cornwall led to an outright ban on harvesting shellfish, punishable by a fine or up to two years of imprisonment.

And while larger companies like Green’s might weather the storm, the impact on smaller producers can be catastrophic. Additional cleaning processes, which require UV lights and running pumps, are energy-guzzling and costly.

“Smaller fishermen are going off to do things like work in a supermarket,” says Labour MP for Canterbury, including the Whitstable area, Rosie Duffield. “[The business] is totally unsustainable… I’ve been telling the government over and over again that they really need to help smaller fishermen.”

Green received no compensation for his lost profits in 2021, and he says there is no easy route through which oystermen can recoup lost profit.

The problem, according to Robert Goodwill, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, is that unlike animals covered by compensation schemes for bird flu or bovine tuberculosis, shellfish are not the property of any professional until harvested, excluding the industry from similar government support. 

In response to the outbreak in Whitstable, Southern Water say there is “no evidence” it was related to Southern Water activity. “We recognise the concerns about water quality expressed by Whitstable’s shellfish businesses, and the financial challenges this industry faces. We’re working hard to reduce storm overflows across our region, and in the Whitstable area we are investing £25m to improve the nearby wastewater treatment site to reduce spills by around 30 per cent.”

UK oyster demand has skyrocketed in recent years, but some oystermen fear complaining about water quality risks forging an association between shellfish and sewage.

However, Green thinks the risks of keeping silent are greater than the rewards. “I’ve kept quiet for nine years and nothing’s changed,” he says.

Whitstable is renowned for its oysters and at weekends, visitors fill the harbour front, slurping freshly shucked shells. An oyster festival draws more than 30,000 people each year and the town’s revival as a down-from-London day trip destination owes much of its buzz to the pastel pink exterior of Wheelers Oyster Bar on the High Street, splashed across Instagram feeds.
Without oysters, Green questions if visitors would still come. His company, which includes the fishery and hospitality venues, is a large employer in the area. 

“They bring in a lot of tourism,” says Duffield. “They’re an important part of our local life. The oysters are clean, and safe, but if people hear rumours about effluence, they are put off.”
Following public outrage over sewage dumping, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan in August 2022. It imposed a deadline of 2035 for reducing sewage pollution in bathing waters and areas of ecological importance but gave companies until 2050 to improve other waterways. For shellfish waters, it said the government was “prioritising action” to improve the water quality of the largest zones by 2030, and stated the EA would require water companies to “explore the need for action” at 62 shellfish waters between 2025 and 2030.

“It’s great to have those targets,” says Duffield, “but what good is it if you’re literally trying to pay your bills week in, week out? I think [shellfish producers] feel slightly disconnected from these plans.” 

In July, Tom Haward and two other claimants launched a high court challenge against the government, arguing the plan allowed water companies to continue polluting for another 27 years. The challenge proposed hard deadlines be brought forward, and tougher targets for water quality be introduced. It also argued that Shellfish Water Protected Areas (SWPAs) were subject to the weakest levels of protection. In September, the case was dismissed.

Following the ruling, the government conceded to some demands. The results of a six-week consulation published in September promised to extend protections to coastal and estuarine waters, and consider SWPAs as high priority sites. But  it only promised to “explore” an ecological standard for estuarine and coastal waters, and there were no changes to deadlines. A Defra spokesperson said the department is committed to protecting shellfish waters.
Sarah Horsfall from the Shellfish Association of Great Britain summed up the industry’s response to discussions as “too little, too late”.

“We need waters to be improved this year, not in 2050,” she says.

Green is optimistic about a future where coastal waters are free from sewage pollution – but he’s not sure his small, but ancient, industry will be around to benefit from it. “Water quality will improve over the next five to 10 years, but it’s a case of whether an industry like mine can survive that long.” 

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