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Saving the Essex oyster: the marine sanctuary hoping to replenish stocks and reverse the huge decline in the delicacy

The largest marine restoration project in Europe is operating off the East coast aiming to bring back the native oyster to Essex. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The largest marine restoration project in Europe is operating off the East coast aiming to bring back the native oyster to Essex.

Since its creation eight years ago the project, which is run by fishermen, the University of Essex and the Zoological Society of London, has created a 20 square kilometre marine conservation zone in the Blackwater Estuary just off the shores of Mersea Island.

It's known as a mother oyster sanctuary, where no-one can fish and baby native oysters are encouraged to grow.

  • Watch a report by ITV News Anglia's Hannah Pettifer

Since the 1850s, 20,000 kilometres of oyster beds have been lost.

A combination of over fishing, disease, pollution and habitat loss has all contributed to stocks of the UK native oyster falling by 95 per cent.

The team behind the project to restore the native oyster to Essex has been working within the marine conservation zone to make the best possible conditions for the native oyster to thrive once again in the wild.

A-frames are bing dropped into the water off Essex for baby oysters to cling to and grow.

A-frames, known as spat collectors, are being dropped into the heart of the zone.

They're widely used in France for baby oysters, or spats, to cling onto and grow.

Much has been done to prepare the area for the oysters.

Tonnes of shells have been laid on the estuary floor, known as laying the cultch, to create the hard surface oysters need to grow.

Tonnes of shells have been laid on the estuary floor to create the hard surface oysters need to grow.

"The spat collectors serve two purposes for us, an experiment we're doing to see if we have successful reproduction in the water column but at the end of the experiment we'll be growing oysters on them.

"When they grow, we'll put them back in the mother oyster sanctuary where they'll stay for the next 10 years and they'll ultimately grow into a wider area and contribute to creating a sustainable fishery again."

– Alison Debney, ZSL Conservation Programme Manager
Richard Haward's Oysters sell 1.5 million oysters every year.

Richard Haward's Oysters have been cultivating oysters in Mersea since the 1700s.

By the end of the year they will have sold 1.5 million oysters.

They're part of the restoration project - alongside their knowledge, supplying the shells that have made the cultch beds.

Since the 1850s, 20,000 kilometres of oyster beds have been lost through over-fishing, disease, pollution and habitat loss.

"Mersea is oysters, and Mersea is oysters all around the world, the name is known and a lot of it is tradition.

"We've always had native oysters here and we'd like to have them, luckily the rock oyster has provided the industry with an income over the last few years but most people who are involved in it would like to see the native come back so we've got more oysters to offer really."

– Richard Haward, Oysterman
An oyster grows for five years before it is big enough to eat.

An oyster takes five years before it's big enough to eat.

The restoration process will be equally as slow - the team will return in the next few months to see if their oyster sanctuary shows any signs of success.