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Oysters and Jersey

Archaeological evidence shows that oysters were eaten by islanders 6,000 years ago, and were fished off Gorey throughout the Middle Ages.

 

During the 19th century the industry became a huge money-spinner for the island and Jersey became one of north-west Europe's main oyster producers. An estimated 2 billion were exported to English markets between 1810 and 1871, when various circumstances saw the industry die out. Shallow waters between Jersey and Normandy made for ideal conditions for the flat, horses-hoof-shaped oysters. They were not regarded as a luxury but as a staple part of the common diet of the population of cities such as London.

 

The nature of the islands oyster fisheries changed after the arrival of English oystermen in 1810; before this, fishing was for local consumption, not export. In Gorey hundreds of shoreworkers were employed as basket fillers, carriers, lifters and washers. The shore was a hive of activity during the second half of the oyster season, which lasted from February to April. In 1839 a canning factory was set up in a house on the Pier.

 

When the fleet returned with their catches, the oysters were dumped in a park, marked by a stake, and sorted into those fit for English markets and those to be retained for local tables. The export catch were then sent by fast vessel to English beds, where they were fattened before going on to London. With both British and French fishermen realising that oysters offered a good living, clashes over who could operate where were inevitable, and violence often flared between rival vessels. Long periods of diplomatic negotiation resulted and strict exclusion zones were set.

 

The industry went into a terminal decline in the 1860s when production fell from 76,000 tubs in 1860 to only 6,000 six years later (a tub was about 1,000 oysters). Authorities blamed over-fishing while the oystermen blamed the enforced closed season that allowed oyster beds to become choked with weed and a drop in oysters reproductive capacity. By 1871 only six oyster boats were recorded as employed in Jersey. It is only in the last 30 years that the harvesting of oysters from Jersey waters has resumed in Grouville Bay. The rows of oysters on their tables can be seen across the bay when the tide is low, with Mont Orgueil Castle still making an impressive backdrop.
(Information and slides kindly provided by the Jersey Heritage Trust)

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