2 October 2023

Underwater reef ‘the size of a football pitch’ becomes home to 10,000 native oysters - in bid to restore the threatened species & support marine life

A newly created reef, the size of a football pitch became home to 10,000 European native oysters today - marking a landmark moment in the restoration of the native species to UK shores.  

The hard-working molluscs - which will also help to create healthy and resilient coastal waters - were laid by conservationists from the Wild Oysters Project onto a newly built 7,500sqm living reef in North East England, following years of planning to restore the species.  

In partnership with Blue Marine Foundation, British Marine and local delivery partner Groundwork North East and Cumbria, our Wild Oyster Project team has spent the past week carefully depositing over 750 tonnes of cultch – made up of old stones and scallop shell - onto the seabed off the coast of Whitburn, forming the foundation for a new underwater marine ecosystem.  

The project’s, which was made possible thanks to £1.18 million raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, newly laid oysters will inhabit local waters alongside oyster nurseries set up underneath local marina pontoons as part of the project in 2021 - which acted as maternity wards for young oysters and an important pilot site for the project. 

Celine Gamble, our Wild Oysters Project Manager, said: “Today marks an important milestone in our journey to restore native oyster reefs to British coastlines. We’re optimistic that the 10,000 oysters will thrive, reproduce and grow on the new reef, which is the size of a football pitch, and we look forward to carefully monitoring their progress over the coming months.”  

Across the UK, wild native oysters (Ostrea edulis) have declined by over 95% since 1800s, with the significant decline resulting from a combination of habitat loss, over-harvesting, pollution and disease. 

Celine explained: “Native oyster reefs have disappeared from our British coastline, and with this we have also lost the benefits that they bring, such as providing essential habitat for other marine species. We’re determined to bring the species back from the brink of extinction, which will in turn will help contribute towards healthier and more resilient coastal waters across the UK.  

“Despite their small size, we recognise oysters as ocean superheroes for making such a big impact within the marine coastal environment; they‘re capable of filtering approximately 200 litres of water a day - around a bathtub’s worth - which in turn contributes towards improving our coastal water quality. 

Cultch laying in Sunderland for oysters
oyster cultch
The cultch is made up of old stones and scallop shell

“This new reef will give the native oyster population a chance to recover and kick-start the population’s natural growth along our coastline.” 

Today’s reef restoration is the culmination of three years of collaborative work to protect the species involving marine conservationists, industry specialists and local communities; after receiving funding from the players of People’s Postcode Lottery, dedicating over nearly 2,000 volunteer hours to monitoring oysters and the biodiversity around them.

The 10,000 oysters will release the next generation of baby oysters to the seabed, with the youngsters, known as spat, in turn settling and growing on the reef, or nearby in North East England coastal waters – boosting the native oyster population in the UK. 

Ashleigh Tinlin-Mackenzie, Local Wild Oysters Marine Ecology Technical Lead, Groundwork NE & Cumbria said: “Oysters have  historically been a part of the local culture - with signs of oysters present through ‘oyster saloons’ in Tynemouth and oyster specialist fish markets in South Shields in the mid 1800s, as well as Oystershell Hall, once situated on Oystershell Lane in Newcastle city centre - but this is the first time they’ve been restored to our waters, where they have long been absent, until now." 

Matt Uttley, Restoration Project Manager, Blue Marine Foundation said: “Native oysters are ecosystem engineers, which means they change and improve the environment around them. Native oysters create a structurally complex three-dimensional habitat, which supports an abundance of other marine life and is intrinsically linked with ecosystem biodiversity.”  

Oysters in a bucket
Blue Marine foundation

The oyster reef - placed in an area carefully selected by conservationists for its suitable substrate, water depth and proximity to the oyster nurseries in Sunderland Marina will hopefully, in time, become an important habitat for many species of marine wildlife - including Critically Endangered species such as the European eel, and other species such as blue mussel, seabass, brittle star species, crab species, nudibranchs and pipefish – as well as supporting a wider fin-fishery. 

We believe that nature can recover, and that conservation is most effective when driven by science. We call for science to guide all global decisions on environment and biodiversity and build a healthier future for wildlife, people and the planet.

Find out more about the project