Online meetings may have kept the shellfish industry in touch over the past two years, but it was a relief to everyone to be able to attend the 52nd Annual Conference of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB) in person this year.

The conference covered both farmed and fished shellfish. This report does not touch upon the latter, although Lindy Wood from the Lobster Pot in Anglesey deserves mention for her Members Slot stroll through her “life in lobsters” and her family’s involvement over 70 years and three generations. It was a delight to listen to.

SAGB Chair Chris Leftwich opened proceedings by calling on government to assist industry to overcome the ongoing Brexit-related and regulatory issues hampering development. He praised the setting up of an All Party Parliamentary Group on shellfish aquaculture – for which SAGB is providing the secretariat – and hoped that this forum would help to raise the profile of the sector in parliament and lead to improvements.

Delegates enjoyed keynote talks from government ministers from all three of the UK’s devolved parliaments, who acknowledged the importance of nurturing a sustainable industry.

Victoria Prentis MP, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said that she had been working hard during the pandemic to keep shellfish farmers in business, through various funding pots. New schemes, including the UK Seafood Fund, are now open to help industry develop its potential. Domestic sales and exports are being encouraged through agencies such as Seafish and the Department for International Trade.

Top of her priority list is to regain EU free market access for live bivalve molluscs, which are currently not eligible for export from Grade B waters, unless they are depurated.

“The government continues to engage with the EU through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to overcome this, but there is little movement from the EU side at present,” she admitted, to the disappointment of mussel farmers.

On the burning issue of ongoing poor coastal water quality, Ms Prentis said that the number of areas marked for improvement and protection is gradually being increased. However, delegates felt that the targets, which stretch to 2050 and beyond, lacked ambition and urgency.

Work is also ongoing with CEFAS and Natural England to resolve a backlog of habitat risk assessments for Pacific oyster farms in protected areas. Despite the many positive attributes of shellfish farming, the current presumption against expansion of farms has created a crisis of confidence in the industry.

Her words were echoed by Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, and Lesley Griffiths MS, Minister for Rural Affairs, North Wales and Trefnydd. Both ministers have important shellfish industries in their countries and are committed to helping them to flourish.

Ms Gougeon explained that shellfish farming in Scotland employs more than 300 people and that Shetland produces 80% of the country’s mussels. Following a review of the aquaculture sector by Professor Russel Griggs, the government has recommended that shellfish leases are extended to 25 years, giving both industry and investors greater confidence in the sector.

Ms Griffiths noted that research is ongoing into how to decarbonise the aquaculture and fisheries industries in Wales, and how to improve long-term management.

Katrine Sasaki, head of market opening and agriculture at the British Embassy in Tokyo, told how her dedicated food and drink team supports exporters to enter the Japanese market and to find local partners. Japan is the largest seafood market in Asia, with per capital consumption twice that of other countries.

“It has to be fresh, healthy, affordable, easy to prepare and sustainable. There is currently no access for raw oysters from the UK, but we are working with Defra and the Japanese authorities to address this,” she said.

Wider market opportunities for UK shellfish were covered by Matt Whittles, head of trade in seafood for the Defra fisheries trade team. He explained that there are lots of “relatively small, but cumulatively big” export opportunities, but admitted that it is challenging to find markets for bulk exports of live mussels.

Aoife Martin, operations director at Seafish, looked at the economic impacts of Covid on the industry, which saw retail and home delivery sales rise, food service all but die out, and many businesses failing. Exports of seafood also took a big hit.

A recent review of farmed shellfish opportunities in the blue economy was covered by Alex Adrian from Crown Estate Scotland, who stated that an increasing number of people are interested in funding this space.

The study looked at the optimum size of shellfish and seaweed farms, at how co-cultivation might make the sector more viable, at alternative markets for raw materials and at the ecosystem services they deliver.

Lewis LeVay from Bangor University, presented the results of a project which looked at the feasibility of developing an assurance scheme for shellfish and human health.

“There is an urgent need to develop an assurance scheme with a more adaptive approach than that currently in use, which throws up many borderline or anomalous results. Our study, which centred on an oyster and mussel farm in the Camel Estuary in Cornwall, showed that a real time predictive system for E. coli levels in shellfish is conceptually feasible and that relatively simple models based on available environmental data could be used to forecast risk to consumers. It is possible to offer producers an approach that is more appropriate by using a pour plate method to analyse samples, instead of the current system which uses Mean Probable Number (MPN),” he said.

The method typically used in the UK to sample for E.coli in mussels involves a serial dilution of mussel flesh extract, followed by statistical analysis of the number of E.coli in the original sample, based on whether or not a positive result is achieved in the dilutions – hence “Mean Probable Number”.

The “pour plate method” is the method of choice in the Netherlands and other EU countries for counting the number of colony-forming bacteria present in a liquid specimen. It uses a sample of mussel extract mixed with molten agar as a medium.

Also at the conference, speaking about his research into the nutritional benefits of bivalve shellfish, Dr David Willer of Cambridge University outlined how poor diets are harming our health, economy and environment.

“Bivalves offer a superior, micronutrient-rich source of dietary protein, which is needed for a healthier diet, as well as being a highly sustainable source of food,” he said.

He postulated how innovation, investment and supply chain involvement could potentially turn the currently small bivalve industry into a multi-billion pound industry producing 6.5 million tonnes of mussel meat per year, by using all available coastal water space.

A major effort to overcome regulatory barriers, set up hatcheries, develop more innovative growing methods, and install novel depuration centres and automated shell removal plants would be required, along with improved freezing and storage, and the development of novel protein extraction techniques.

“We look at the big picture, at what could be,” he said, leaving his audience with food for thought.

Chef and oyster afficionado Bobby Groves, spoke of his journey to write Oyster Isles, released in 2019.

“It is as much about how oysters are farmed in myriad ways, as my enjoyment of discovering how the merroir is different at each farm. It also includes tales of farmers’ lives, explains why oysters matter, and opens up a new world to the reader,” he said.

I can highly recommend it!

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