Toils of mass destruction

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Modern fish farming methods, which involve growing on small oysters to marketable size in mesh sacks supported on iron frames set on the foreshore, are environmentally sound.

The same could not be said of the old-style fishery, which relied on sail-powered fishing smacks raking the seabed with dredges.

The dredges, which were relatively light, might have caused only limited damage, but the intensity of the fishing effort eventually wiped out the extensive beds.

Although plenty of knobbly, tear-drop Portuguese oysters are found in and outside our fish farms, you have to search long and hard to find as much as a single specimen of the flat native oysters which were once present in incredible numbers and were the foundation of the east-coast fishery. Nevertheless, for a few decades, the Island’s oyster fishery was a major source of wealth and employment.

In its heyday in the early 19th century, it involved more than 300 fishing boats and employed some 2,000 fishermen plus many women who processed and packed the catch on shore.

As remains found at La Hougue Bie and elsewhere attest, oysters have long been eaten by the Island’s inhabitants.

And as early as 1606 the Royal Court recognised the right of all Jersey folk to fish for oysters, rejecting the claim that the shellfish beds off the east coast belonged to the Crown. But it was not until the middle of the 18th century that a major fishery began to take off.

With an eye not on conservation, but on risks to public health of shellfish going bad in the summer sun and poisoning people, oyster dredging was restricted to months with an R in them in 1755, but it was the chaos of the French Revolution which spurred the real growth of the fishery.

While their cousins across the water were preoccupied with internal strife, Jersey fishermen freely plundered the oyster beds close to the Normandy coast.

Word of rich pickings spread quickly to the south coast of England, and the Jersey fleet was soon swelled with additional vessels from Faversham, Sittingbourne, Southampton and Portsmouth.

Eventually, boats from as far afield as Colchester in Essex joined the oyster bonanza.

Recognising good business when they saw it, the States built a pier at Gorey to help shelter the fleet – at a cost of £16,000 – and also improved facilities at Rozel and Bouley Bay.

By the season of 1834, 305,670 bushels of oysters were being exported – a bushel being an eight-gallon container. But something of a wild west – or, rather, wild east – atmosphere pervaded the oyster fishery.

Big money was at stake, so big risks were taken, and as France settled down after revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, there were regular clashes on the fishing grounds between boats operating from Jersey and Frenchmen eager to protect the beds close to their shores.

One occurred in 1828, when a Jersey-based boat was captured by two French warships and taken to Granville.

The rest of the Jersey fleet duly sailed for the French port, assaulted the French vessels and their crews and retook the captured boat.

However, a report in The Times newspaper of the day records that ‘several boatmen’ lost their lives and that others ended up ‘in irons’ as prisoners of the French.

A similarly dramatic incident is recorded by Edmund Burke, the great political philosopher, in a volume of the Annual Register, which he edited.

An oyster boat from Milton in the UK, the Frolic, was caught at anchor off the Normandy coast by a rowing boat dispatched by a French warship, L’Ecureuil.

The Frolic’s skipper, a man called Burnet, ordered his crew to resist the boarding party and brandished a gun that he used to shoot wildfowl to try to deter the Frenchmen.

But they, too, were armed, but with muskets rather than fowling pieces, and Burnet and his crew found themselves at the wrong end of an unequal shooting match.

The skipper was shot through the chest and died an hour and a half later, though by that time the French had retreated, one of their party having been severely wounded by a volley of birdshot.

The Frolic made her escape, but another Jersey vessel, the Flora, was captured without a fight and taken to Granville, where she and her crew were detained until the end of the fishing season. When an inquest was held in Jersey, it was concluded that Burnet had been ‘wilfully murdered’ by the French.

In Island waters, the beds in the Royal Bay of Grouville and in other inshore areas had been quickly fished out, so the States decided to reseed them with immature oysters, at a cost of £4,000.

Unfortunately, the skippers and crews of 120 boats declined to wait until the new stock had matured and set out to fish in the bay in April 1838. The Constable of St Martin tried to intervene, but because he put to sea in nothing more threatening than an unarmed rowing boat, he was merely jeered and then ignored.

However, the ringleaders of the premature expedition were arrested the following day, although that did not stop others making another foray four days later.

This time, the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Archibald Campbell, sent out the Militia, whose artillerymen fired a couple of cannonballs in the general direction of the oyster fleet, which duly returned to port.

More than 90 skippers were then arrested, tried and fined, but the event proved fatal for the Lieutenant-Governor, who caught a chill while supervising the Militia operation and died of pneumonia a few days later.

The keenness of the fleet to fish for immature oysters in the Royal Bay of Grouville was probably indicative of a fishery already in decline.

There were slim pickings in Island waters and the French were increasingly diligent when its came to protecting the beds within six miles of their shores.

The fishery certainly struggled on for several years, but by 1863 Jersey was no longer exporting oysters.

As in the case of the buffalo of the Great Plains in the USA and the cod shoals of Canada’s Grand Banks, a seemingly inexhaustible stock was extinguished in a shockingly short period of intense effort.

A group portrait of men connected with the Jersey ‘Oyster Culture Establishment’: Front row, from left, C G Renouf, T W Le Blancq, Philippe Baudains (the Constable of St Helier), W Gann (of Hayling Island, Portsmouth); back row, C Buttfield, M Marty (Keeper of the Biological Station at Roscoff) and J Sinel . Picture courtesy of the Société Jersiaise

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