Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #3

Appeal Reference APP/J2210/C/18/3209297, Land at Whitstable Beach

Evidence presented to the Public Inquiry on July 28th 2021 from Geoff Meaden

I am Dr Geoff Meaden. Before retirement in 2009 I was Principal Lecturer in Geography at Canterbury Christ Church University. Here my main interests were in marine fish ecology, biogeography and Geographical Information Systems (GIS). I led a Fisheries GIS Research Unit, and also did much consultancy work in these subject areas for the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the UN. For about 12 years I have been chair of NEKSCAG (North East Kent Scientific Coastal Advisory Group) – a local committee set up under Natural England to advise on scientific matters in the Thanet and Sandwich SPA marine areas. My interest in this inquiry relates to the possible impact of farmed non-native oysters on the local marine assemblages in North East Kent. 

The whole of the oyster aquaculture industry in the UK and elsewhere has been, and indeed still is, going through a period of turmoil and uncertainty. This is in respect to a wide variety of causes including: – the industry’s status; the status of Pacific oysters (POs) v native oysters; disease problems; ecosystem effects on other species; market uncertainties especially following Brexit; the complexities of governance rules, authorities and legal status; production methods; supply chains; climate change effects; etc. It is in this atmosphere that I have concerns as to whether or not the activity can operate responsibly, and indeed it appears to many local people that perhaps the local aquacultural operations continue almost with impunity.

Previous to this century oyster production in the area was confined to the native species (Ostrea edulis). This species caused few local ecological type productions partly because their habitat was sub-tidal which greatly reduced interactions with human activities. However, with the local appearance earlier this century of non-native POs (Magallana gigas – previously known as Crassostrea gigas), which can thrive in the inter-tidal zone, it was clear that there would be competition for the strictly limited space for shellfish in this inter-tidal zone, and indeed this has been the case. Thus, POs have greatly extended both their territory and their ability to occupy various ecological spaces or structures, with the result that extensive species displacement has occurred. In some areas extensive PO reef formations have become evident on the Thanet chalk reef, and this is causing the nature of the Thanet & Sandwich SPA to radically alter.

Arising from a Shellfish Association of Great Britain report on POs in the UK (published in 2012), there was a suggestion that the removal of small pockets of POs should be considered in locations having serious local repercussions. Being the responsible organisation for SPA management in the UK, Natural England opted to undertake a range of PO surveys along the Thanet section of the SPA coastline. One of the decisions arising from these surveys was that various PO control methods should be licensed in specific locations to see if elimination, or at least reduction, of the species was possible. A small number of coastal sites were chosen in which all POs were eliminated, and these sites have been monitored to see how subsequent populations might compare to designated control sites. This elimination program continues with over 300,000 POs having now been removed. While some success has been recorded at specific sites, the longer-term situation has still to be evaluated. But our major concerns on POs presently include: – the uncertainty in respect to funding for the elimination program; the spatial extent that needs to be covered; climatic factors that may affect die-off of POs during cold winters; rates of global warming temperature increases; and oyster culturing activities such as those being practiced at Whitstable.

Presently the work of my committee has been suspended due to Covid and to internal problems within NE. A far as I can see no attention has been paid to the repercussions of the probable downstream (eastwards) movement of spawn or even disease pathogens from the WOC site. Whenever the downstream larval drift from the Whitstable facilities occurs, this could be a major contributing factor to the Thanet & Sandwich SPA marine area having no control on the impact of this drift on populations of most of its native shellfish species. Now I fully realise that the Whitstable Oyster Company maintain that their oyster stock is totally triploid compliant but, as outlined in paragraphs 12 and 13 of APEM Marine Ecology Rebuttal Response Document P00004092, there is some uncertainty about this. Additionally, even if the oysters are 100% triploid, this does not mean they are 100% certain to be infertile and incapable of reproduction. I have seen no scientific evidence to show that this is not the case, and thus the oyster production facilities at Whitstable must remain a threat to the Thanet & Sandwich SPA. And can I point out that the recently issued South East Inshore Marine Plan (Technical Annex – June 2021 – paragraph 183) notes clearly that “POs are classified in the UK as non-native species, and inhibiting the spread of invasive non-native species is an important aspect of sustainable aquaculture management”. In fact, we at NEKSCAG see no good reason why WOC is not obliged to rear native oysters, i.e. as is being practiced successfully in several Essex coastal locations.

Finally, it appears to me and others that NE, and indeed DEFRA itself, have a complete conflict of interest in this whole situation. Thus, they are faced with a conflicting remit that includes both protection of the shellfish industry on one hand and continuing conservation of the natural environment on the other hand. This has made my job as chair of the NEKSCAG group somewhat difficult to balance, but since NEKSCAG itself was established by NE in order to serve the protection of the Thanet SPA, we have always seen environmental aspects as taking precedence. To see rapidly expanding PO production in upstream “shared” North Kent waters is not at all encouraging and indeed this completely defies easy logic.

Signed Geoff Meaden, BEd, MSc, Phd.

My interest in this inquiry relates to the possible impact of non-native farmed oysters on the local marine assemblages around Thanet. I believe that my experience may enable me to provide information which could be useful and valuable to the inquiry. Otherwise, I am very much in involved in environmental matters and am presently the Green Party candidate in an Ashford Borough Council by-election where I think my prospects are looking quite good.

More on the Oyster Trestles:

Whitstable vs Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #1

Oyster Trestle Public Inquiry: Special Feature #2

Whitstable Beach Campaign: stop the industrialisation of the foreshore

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