Tradition on the half shell: Picking oysters in post-Brexit Britain

Jonathan Browning
Oyster catcher Tom Haward (front) brings a dredging cage filled with oysters on Mersea Island, England. The Haward family has harvested oysters for generations.

For eight generations, going back to the 1700s, Tom Haward’s family has been harvesting succulent oysters from the mud flats of Mersea Island. Located 75 miles northeast of London, the estuary island is known for its shellfish.

The Hawards, who run an oyster bar in London and a small market on the island, also exported their mollusks to Europe – that is, until Brexit wreaked havoc on the industry. The European Union placed a ban on live shellfish from the United Kingdom, and since then, the shellfish trade has ground to a halt. 

The British fishing fleet was one of the loudest voices in the pro-Brexit camp. But not Mr. Haward, who opposed leaving the EU. “Brexit’s negative impact is going to reverberate through the shellfish industry for many years,” he says. 

Why We Wrote This

Brexit was defined in part by ideologies of nationalism, pride, and independence. But for others, like the oyster harvester featured in this photo essay, it’s the practical effects of leaving the European Union that are on their mind.

Stewardship of the estuaries is important to the Haward family, which owns 14 acres of mud banks. The beds are rich in nutrients for the spawn to settle into and become oysters. The Hawards pick them up by hand or use a dredger if they are deep and out of reach, and return any that are not fully developed. Mr. Haward likes the fact that he’s doing the same work as his ancestors.

“The world has changed so much, and yet what we do has barely altered. I find that incredibly humbling,” he says. 

Jonathan Browning
Bram Haward steers the boat as the oyster beds are dredged. The shallow creeks of Mersea Island in England provide good growing conditions for the mollusks.
Jonathan Browning
Tom Haward, an eighth- generation oystercatcher, hand-picks oysters off the mud beds. His fifth great- grandfather in the 1700s did the same work.
Jonathan Browning
These mud flats are only available to hand-pick during low tide. The tall sticks mark the boundaries between different beds.
Jonathan Browning
Oysters often need to be separated with a metal tool and thrown back into the nutrient-rich mud to grow further.

Jonathan Browning
Tom Haward shucks and eats a fresh oyster at the bow of his boat. The Hawards own an oyster bar in the famous Borough Market in London and also supply the top restaurants in the city

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