Native Oyster Restoration Northern Ireland (NONI) is the first step to restore our once-abundant native oyster beds and the associated ecosystem services they provide; clean water, healthy fisheries, and enhanced biodiversity. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) are supporting the native oyster work over the next 5 years that is part of the larger Blue Recovery programme within Ulster Wildlife.
In Northern Ireland, extensive oyster beds existed for several hundred years in Carlingford Lough, Lough Foyle, and Belfast Lough, but most stocks crashed by the early twentieth century. Today, only a small population of wild oysters exists in Strangford Lough. Lough Foyle has a fraction of the wild stock it once had although a small artisanal fishery is still in existence. While in Belfast Lough no native oysters had been recorded for over 100 years until the summer of 2020, when live oysters were discovered along the lough shore in small assemblages. Evidence that the environmental conditions for re-establishment were now present.
To support the natural recovery of the native oyster in Northern Ireland, Ulster Wildlife is installing oyster nurseries across key sites with links to historical beds and fisheries. These oyster nurseries can be considered as micro-habitats housing mature fecund oysters that will reproduce and release the next generation of larvae to settle out on the seabed. The cages are hung in the water underneath the pontoons, which provides the oysters with protection from predation and hand harvesting.
Currently Ulster Wildlife have oyster nurseries in Marina’s at both Bangor and Glenarm housing more than 1500 Ostrea edulis. The nursery network has expanded to include a pontoon in partnership with Belfast Harbour within a commercial shipping waterway. We are assisted in the upkeep and monitoring of the nurseries by a community of dedicated volunteers, allowing us to further promote our work to a wider audience. To upscale oyster restoration across Northern Ireland, survey licences have been granted by the Crown Estate to explore historical oyster beds as suitable sites for restoration efforts by the deployment of oysters directly onto the seabed. In the future we hope to establish reefs within two three-hectare plots at sites which once had significant socio-economic importance to the people of Northern Ireland.
Dr Rachel Millar