Oyster Farmers (left to right) Pat Tucker and George Congdon
Oyster farmers on the River Dart can only tend their crop for 25 days of the year when the spring tides are in force.
Fishermen George Congdon and Pat Tucker cultivate the crop when the tides are low enough to reveal the shellfish, which happens during the spring tides, as this is the only time they can see the oysters.
Their aquatic farm stretches some 800-metres from Noss to Long Wood just below Maypool on the east side of the river, and around 300-metres from Kiln Gate to Lord’s Wood on the west side.
They also have rights to use an area at Flat Owers near Dittisham, set up by Devon Sea Fisheries over a decade ago.
The pair can yield an annual harvest of up to 50-tonnes of Pacific oysters from the river banks, the majority of which are shipped to France.
When not tending the oysters, George and Pat independently fish in Start Bay.
Oyster farming can be a lucrative business but oysters are delicate creatures so it’s also an unpredictable one.
Last year George and Pat bought 1.8million juvenile oysters. It usually takes around two-years for the pair to grow the seeds to market size of between 80 and 110-grammes.
‘On paper it’s a massively viable business, we have just yet to realise it,’ George said. ‘We keep expanding and ploughing money in’.
Former KEVICC’s student George, 44, has been farming oysters for 11 years. He became a fisherman when he left the Totnes school, skippering Torbay-based trawlers in Scotland before going solo and fishing for shellfish and the likes of bass, sole and cuttlefish in Start Bay.
Pat, 49, a former Churston Grammar School pupil, spent five years in the merchant navy before skippering the Dartmouth-based William Henry crabber off the Hebrides and Orkney Islands.
He now fishes alone off Start Point in his 30-ft craft True Grit for spider crab, ray and red mullet. Pat joined forces with George three years ago.
Setting up an oyster farm seemed like a natural side-step for George, of Ashprington, who explained: ‘I knew someone with an oyster farm on the River Yealm and he asked me to supply him when he didn’t have oysters.
‘There was an oyster farm in the Dart in the ‘70s but TBT antifouling paint, which is toxic to oysters, killed it off. Their shells got thick and deformed; you can still see the dead ones there now.
‘As far as I know Devon Sea Fisheries were forced to come up with some alternative way shell fishermen could make money. They set up Waddeton Oyster Fishery and leased the land off the Duchy of Cornwall for a vastly reduced rate.
‘Every fisherman was supposed to have a patch like a communist state up there but none of them took it up. A couple of people tried and gave up.
‘There is one other chap up there doing it like a hobby, he’s got a tiny bit and we’ve got the rest of it. If it wasn’t for us it would have fallen by the wayside.
‘We have now expanded down the river into a new oyster fishery and with the space we’ve got we could harvest 50-tonnes a year, which is what I reckon we will do this year and next year’.
For the past couple of years George and Pat have been playing catch up as they received undersized seed oysters from their suppliers at Morecombe Bay Oysters. It has taken them nearly three years to grow the oysters to the 2-milimetre size they usually receive from the hatchery.
‘They turn up from the hatchery in a bag, like a bag of sand,’ George said.
‘Their lives are spent in bags, different size mesh string ones, and we sieve them as they grow as they all grow at different rates. We just keep sieving and grading them.
‘We can only work every other two weeks because of the spring tides but we do a lot of work in that time. We grade and count at the same time, it’s an on-going process.’
George and Pat’s biggest market is at Christmas time. They sell their oysters to Brixham Sea Farm which in turn sells them on the buyers in France and London.
Pat, of Stoke Fleming, said: ‘The French love them, they eat far more seafood than we do in England. It’s a massive market. Sixty per cent of our oysters are sold in the couple of weeks before Christmas. Oysters and crabs are a Christmas delicacy in France.
‘Our oysters are sold in London all year round but the price plummets in the summer.
‘We try not to do too much to the oysters in the summer because they just die. This is when they spawn, great plumes of eggs and sperm are released and if you move them they can choke on it and die. They are also prone to heat stress.’
Water quality also plays a huge part in the success of George and Pat’s business. Untreated sewage effluent and agricultural run-off carrying fertilizers and slurry can all contaminate the fishery.
George and Pat’s fishery has received the second highest grading of B, (oyster farms are graded from A to D) which means they must go through a purification process before they are eaten.
The pair constantly face the worry of their farm being downgraded. Pat said: ‘It doesn’t take a lot to go to a C grading and if we get two bad tests we would be closed down. We are one bad test away from being closed down. But contamination of our oysters is totally out of our hands.
George said: ‘We have been told by a CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) scientist that the new development at Noss has a licence to discharge 136-tonnes of primarily treated sewage into the river. That’s 100 yards away from our oysters.
‘The biggest risk is the herpes oyster disease coming from France. A massive number of oyster farms in France have been wiped out by it and it’s coming here. There was an outbreak last year in Essex and Kent where a huge farm was wiped out in days.
‘The sewage we can overcome, but we can’t get around dead oysters. But as long as we don’t get herpes we are expecting a good year’.
Despite the uncertainties of their business, the pair relish the chance to farm oysters on the Dart. ‘We supply food to the nation and we’ve got our own business going,’ Pat said.
‘It’s a pleasant job and it’s great to work on the river. I’ve spent my life on the river and I love it.
‘Oysters are fantastic, everyone should eat them, they’re great for your sex life!’
George added: ‘If it’s blowing and we can’t go out fishing we can keep working with our oysters. It adds another interest to one’s life other than doing the same thing all the time.
‘A lot of people on the river have always been positive about what we do. It could be seen as an intrusion in a beautiful area but most people are very positive’.
First published May/June 2013 By The Dart