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Fishing for native oysters or farming rock oysters
Whitstable is famous for its oysters. The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company (WOFC) has been in existence since 1793, when it was set up by an Act of Parliament; but, as its name suggests, this was to fish for oysters in the oyster beds far off shore, using dredgers, not to farm them in a semi-industrial process on racks adjacent to the beach.
I’m sure that most people in Whitstable will have seen them. Visitors, too, now comment on the unsightly proliferation of these rusting metal constructions stretched out along the foreshore. They are visible at low tide, first appearing as a series of hooks above the water line as the tide is receding, then slowly revealing themselves more and more as the water shrinks back into the estuary.
In case you don’t know, these are oyster trestles, constructed by the WOFC in unprecedented numbers in recent years.
The WOFC was originally formed as a cooperative for the free fishermen and dredgers of Whitstable, but the company is now dominated by one family, the Greens, who own most of the shares, and who run the company for their own benefit.
The oysters farmed in this way are not the royal natives, upon which Whitstable’s historic reputation rests, but Pacific oysters, usually sold under the euphemistic name of rock oysters. You will have seen them. They are grey in colour, less expensive than the brown natives, and are available throughout the year. This obviously makes them more appealing to a commercially minded company primarily interested in profit. The natives, famously, are only gathered when there is an “R” in the month.
Pacific oysters are a non-native species, and hazardous. Unlike the natives, which lie flat on the sea bed, the Pacific oysters grow vertically, with their razor-sharp shells pointing upwards, making them potentially injurious to anyone who treads on them with bare feet. They are also classified as an invasive species. Many of them have already escaped the confines of the trestles and are proliferating along our Kent shoreline. “Coastbuster” projects, funded by Natural England and Kent Wildlife Trust, are being run along the coast at Herne Bay, Birchington and Margate with volunteers working to eradicate the species. It seems strange, and not a little contradictory, that on one part of the shore we have environmental groups destroying Pacific oysters while on another we have a company actively growing them for profit. It has been likened to growing Japanese knotweed in poly tunnels.
Environmental hazards from the Pacific oyster
Due to rising sea temperatures, Pacific oysters are also now capable of breeding. The WOFC’s own science reports have stated that triploid (sterile) oysters have a reversion rate of 0.06 per cent. That sounds like an insignificant number except that, with over 6.5 million oysters currently being grown in Whitstable, thousands could revert to their diploid (fertile) state. 0.06 per cent of 6.5 million equals 3,900 oysters, potentially producing between 50 and 200 million eggs each. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
In Brightlingsea in Essex, the beach became unusable for leisure due its colonisation by rock oysters. A programme of removal had to be put in place after the oysters’ razor-sharp shells cut the hands and feet of sailors jumping out of their boats at low tide. According to Dave Gibbons, the commodore of Brightlingsea Sailing Club, the oyster shells are sharp enough to go through rubber boots.
“The real danger is if somebody trips or stumbles on to them,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has had to have stitches, but certainly we have had two or three fairly serious cuts to feet or hands.”
Robin Cole, the harbourmaster, said: “I have heard stories of dogs running across the areas where these are growing and the huge vet bills which followed because the dogs have lacerated their feet.”
Safety hazards from oyster trestles
Apart from the hazards of rock oyster proliferation, a specific danger is presented by the racks themselves, which are embedded in the mud on the foreshore, lying hidden under water most of the time.
When they first appeared they were constructed with the sharp metal points of the framework sticking upward in what Councillor Ashley Clark described as “a sea of bayonets”. Since then, under orders from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) the spikes have been bent over, creating a sea of hooks instead: potentially just as hazardous to unsuspecting shipping, and even more likely to snag on lines or clothing, possibly leading to the “worst credible outcome of severe injury or fatality” to quote from the MMO report.
Cllr Clark said: “When submerged by the water, they are a serious hazard. The spiked racks are a danger to navigation and swimmers, particularly those who might be unfamiliar with the area and young people learning to sail at the sailing school who drift.”
Lots of people use the beach. It is one of the things that Whitstable is famous for. Sailors, swimmers, windsurfers, kayakers, paddle boarders: all of these may drift accidentally into the area where the oyster trestles are situated, which, when the tide is going down, will hide just beneath the surface, causing a potentially dangerous situation. Imagine children going out, holding on to a rubber dinghy as they splash their legs about, with the racks only inches below the surface. It’s a wonder there hasn’t already been a serious injury.
Nevertheless, 164 members of the public did report incidents involving the trestles in a survey conducted by the Whitstable Beach Campaign in early 2020. Expect increasing numbers as the summer draws more visitors down from London and other parts of the country to escape the heat and to enjoy our wonderful amenities.
Uncontrolled trestle expansion without planning permission
What is so astounding about all this is the fact that the WOFC built these trestles without planning permission; and despite three years of an ongoing planning enforcement appeal, and with no permission in place, the company has continued to expand its operations, which have been growing year on year.
According to the Whitstable Beach Campaign, “a tiny number of what we believe were test trestles first appeared in 2010, but in 2016 WOFC started on a significant programme of growth. It erected the current oyster trestle development, growing it rapidly to over 100 times its original size.
“In 2017 Canterbury City Council asked WOFC to apply for permission, but in 2018 they chose instead to apply for a certificate of lawful existing use or development (CLEUD).
“A CLEUD can be applied for if a development has been in situ unchanged for four years or more without any objections from the local planning authority.
“WOFC claimed the development had existed for over four years; however the CLUED was refused. WOFC then appealed the decision.”
The resulting public inquiry starts on the July 26 2021 and will be overseen by an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State. It will be virtual so anyone giving evidence or wishing to have a say will be doing it online, subject to the Inspector’s approval. To date the public at large have received no information on how this will operate and have been left out of the inquiry to a large extent because there’s been little or no local authority publicity about it; none of the documents have been made available online and people can’t view hard copies at Canterbury City Council because of COVID. Any information that has managed to leak out has mostly been via The Whitstable Beach campaign, otherwise people would be completely in the dark about it.
Certainly public “ignorance” about the proceedings might be said to benefit at least one of the parties involved in what appears increasingly to look like a not-so public inquiry.
By pursuing the CLEUD route, the company cleverly avoided the normal public consultation process that a planning application would provide. This is wholly undemocratic and means that any concerns the public have about the development cannot be heard without making a formal application to take part in the public inquiry.
Despite the CLEUD process not allowing for public consultation, in 2018, 232 members of the public and eight local and environmental organisations, including Kent Wildlife Trust and RSPB, Herne Bay & Whitstable Water Safety Committee and the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) wrote to Canterbury City Council and objected to the development.
By using the CLUED process, and circumventing public consultation, WOFC was able to avoid any of the environmental assessments that would normally have been required before any development takes place. Whitstable beach is in a Marine Conservation Zone and a protected area covered by a number of environmental laws. Kent Wildlife Trust describes Whitstable foreshore as “a rare and fragile habitat of conservation importance that should be protected.”
The continuing development of industrial-scale farming, ripping apart this delicate ecosystem, is an ongoing threat to an area of national and international importance.
The company has been abundantly clear about its plans to continue to expand the farm. James Green, managing director of the WOFC, in an article published by Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) in January 2019 stated: “This year, the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Co will produce around 100 metric tons of oysters, which will equate to around one million shells. In 2019, the harvest is expected to triple to 300 metric tons.” The GAA adds: “Green’s ambition is to continue to grow, reaching 500 to 600 metric tons within five years.”
Interestingly, in the same article James Green appears to view local opposition to his industry as a form of ignorance he needs to address.
“We are constantly trying to change people’s perceptions of this type of aquaculture and get the local population on our side. I accept that visually it’s a change, compared to oyster dredging, which remains much the same as it was 100 years ago,” he said. “When you are conducting intertidal culture and using racks, bags, quadbikes and boats — that comes to people’s attention; many people just don’t want to see it. So, educating people on the benefits of what we are doing commercially, in terms of products, businesses, employment, etc, can be a struggle.”
What he fails to impress upon his associates at the GAA is that all of this is taking place on the foreshore, not a hundred yards from the most well-used part of the beach, in what is otherwise a popular tourist town. Crucially, other examples of this form of aquaculture usually take place well away from built-up areas.
He also fails to explain that the objections to the unremitting expansion of his company operations are not simply related to the unsightly appearance of this industry but to its dangers to public safety and its environmental impact, with disruption to the sea-bed ecology, waste and debris in the water and on the beach, and the fact that the WOFC chose to erect and expand their trestle development without any consultation with the community. Local objections are not only about these ugly structures blighting the view but also about the conceit with which the company has conducted itself over the years, pursuing its own business interests, including controversial property developments, at the expense of the wider community.
Significant further expansion towards the harbour
News has now surfaced that the WOFC plans to extend its oyster farming operations eastwards towards the harbour. This information came to light when Whitstable Yacht Club (WYC) made a recent application to renew its lease. The WOFC proposed a change of lease to allow for the extension of its own operations, which is now being challenged by the yacht club.
The key reference is in an email sent by the club to its members on the May 25 2021. This is the relevant part:
“In the WOFC’s response to our questions it became clear that the new lease offered to the club no longer includes the seaward area, that is the area directly in front of the beach leased by the club.
“Although removal of the seaward area of the lease does not necessarily prevent access to the area beyond it, the WOFC have also stated that they wish to expand the oyster trestles eastward. This would be unacceptable to the club, effectively restricting access to sailing areas.”
In other words, despite having no planning permission for the existing structures, and despite there being an impending public inquiry, the company nevertheless has plans for an unprecedented extension of the current development into areas traditionally used by Whitstable’s sailing fraternity.
It has also submitted plans to Whitstable Harbour Board to construct a large shed on the beach adjacent to the RNLI station to facilitate oyster processing.
Of course, all of this depends upon the WOFCs ownership of the beach and foreshore due to the ancient royal charter it holds. This is for oyster fishing, not farming. As with all things, ownership implies responsibility, and while the WOFC is quick to take any profit its various enterprises afford, it seems much less inclined to take responsibility.
In fact, the WOFC owns the entire West Beach and foreshore, and beyond the mean low-tide mark – with a few minor exceptions including the harbour area – as far north and east to the shingle spit at Tankerton, known as The Street (see Land Registry title document K781262).
Apart from industrial waste from its activities finding its way onto the beach, including numerous washed-up rubber straps and debris from its oyster racks and sacks, litter, including food wrappings from its commercial activities, also ends up on the beach and seawall area. Despite the company’s ownership of the beach, Canterbury City Council clears the litter on a daily basis, including that collected by volunteers from the Whitstable Marine Environment Group, with no charge being made to the company. Is this indicative of an improper relationship? Can it be right that taxpayers’ money is being used to clear private land on a regular basis?
The “privately owned” beach in its current form only exists due to cyclical sea defence works funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In other words, the taxpayer. Much of the beach to which the WOFC lay claim would be under water at high tide if it weren’t for the beach being raised in height at massive public expense. The last public works, the Whitstable Coastal Defence Scheme, in 2006, cost nearly £10m.
And why is our elected representative, the local MP, Rosie Duffield, not taking action by supporting the Whitstable Beach Campaign in its efforts to prevent a WOFC land grab that threatens to damage tourism, threaten public safety, destroy recreational water sports and cause long-term environmental damage?
For too long, Whitstable has been held hostage to the ambitions of one privately owned company. It’s up to us, the people of this town, to finally say “enough is enough”.
What YOU can do to help
SHARE this article widely to raise awareness of the issue and the upcoming public inquiry.
JOIN the new Facebook page for Whitstable Beach Campaign: https://www.facebook.com/groups/953077472197689
SIGN UP for the Whitstable Beach Campaign’s newsletter and updates by e-mailing: email@example.com
FOLLOW the campaign on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/whitstablebeachcampaign/
DONATE what you can to the Whitstable Beach Campaign Crowdfunder and share this link widely: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/save-whitstable-beach (They are fighting the development at the forthcoming public inquiry and need our help to fund their legal fees.)
WRITE to Rosie Duffield MP at this address and ask why she has not supported this campaign: firstname.lastname@example.org
ENGAGE WITH the public inquiry. If you would like to present your view to the public inquiry, please email the Planning Inspector Ben White (case officer) at TeamE3@planninginspectorate.gov.uk stating your reason for speaking. You will need to be available on the 26th July to hear whether you will be called to speak. It is online, no need to attend in person.
More on the Public Inquiry:
CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.
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