‘SpongeBob lives under the sea!’ yelled the group gathered on the impressive ‘apron’ at LandRover BAR’s headquarters in Portsmouth Harbour. Surrounded, or rather, outnumbered by 30 Year 6 students from Wicor Primary School, I was leading BLUE’s first ever school visit to our oyster cages.
To open the door to the wonderful world of oysters, I had come up with a game to test their underwater knowledge and explore the reasons why the world has lost over 85% of its oyster beds. Enter SpongeBob and Mr Crabs.
Situated in the heart of Portsmouth Harbour, an oyster’s throw from the hourly ferry to the Isle of Wight, this is the perfect location to highlight the importance of oysters for our oceans’ health. Having recently watched the film a Plastic Ocean, the students were quick to point out the rubbish floating en masse in corners of the harbour walls and oil swirling and glistening across the surface of the water as I pointed to where the cages are kept. In response I said, “What better place to have 2,000 filter feeders capable of cleaning 400,000 litres of water a day?
The children were split into teams with names ranging from the Sea Dragons to Sea Slugs. The students waited patiently, blue-gloved hands clutching trays. Their task was to identify, count and record as many species as possible to help our work on the importance of oysters as habitat providers. As cages hit the pontoon, so did a pile of jumping, twitching creatures – and thirty pairs of hands and knees.
Almost a year since these oysters arrived, part of the 10,000 adult native oysters restored by BLUE through our Solent Oyster Restoration Project, results have been impressive. Monitoring over the summer has shown oysters at all six sites have spawned, releasing millions of larvae into the water.
We hope that larvae from the oysters at LandRover BAR will by now have settled onto the seabed, joining those released from last year’s successful cage trials.
The oysters’ value in enhancing biodiversity has been vividly demonstrated by the 83 species that have now been found living on, or caught off guard feeding and sheltering between, the oysters as the cages have been pulled up. Among those species found by Luke Helmer, the BLUE funded PhD student monitoring the cages, are 15 critically endangered European eels and a juvenile spiny seahorse. The European eel migrates all the way from streams and rivers in the UK to the Sargasso Sea in Bermuda to give birth and its populations have failed to recover following loss of habitat, historic over-fishing and current illegal fishing. It has been incredible to learn the value of these oyster cages as sanctuaries for species as endangered as eels.
Back on the pontoon and using laminated ID cards the students, assisted by some of the project’s researchers and volunteers, were shouting again. Except this time it wasn’t SpongeBob but “porcelain crab”, “star ascidian”, “rock cook”, and “tompot blenny”. All of these species are usual suspects in our cages, benefitting from the services oysters provide. One team alone found more than 100 sea squirts on their cage. As teams identified species (and another ferry came and went) the links began to be made – cleaner water, greater biodiversity, more food for people to eat.
The proximity of the cages to the shore and ease of access is ideal to help engage Solent communities with the importance of oyster beds, and explore the habitat themselves. Over the course of the day 70 students got muddy and stuck in gathering crucial data. This visit will surely be the first of many as BLUE seeks to engage young and old with the humble native oyster and our restoration project working to save it here in the Solent.
For me, the highlight of the day came when discussing the life cycle of an oyster. Oysters are able to switch from male to female depending on the need of the population. When asked if people could switch, I laughed and automatically said no, but was quickly corrected by a chorus of “THEY CAN!”. As if the CV of an oyster isn’t impressive enough turns out they can also teach us a bit about the open-mindedness of the next generation.