The recently-established Charlotteville Oyster Growing Project in Tobago is ready to reap delicious rewards. on marine conservation in T&T.
Aljoscha Wothke, CEO of the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC), is spearheading the project. ERIC focuses on marine conservation in T&T.
Wothke told Sunday Business Guardian that some 15,000 baby oysters that were sourced from the US found a home in Charlotteville waters.
He described the town on Tobago’s northeast coast as a superior site to cultivate oysters, which have grown for about six months.
Now they are ready to be harvested and will go for trials.
“The first batch of oysters will go to people to see how they taste. Then we will supply to Tobago clients and maybe one or two selected Trinidad clients whose restaurants have declared an interest to try them out,” Wothke said.
Energy giant bpTT was lauded for its financial contribution, which made the project possible.
The company confirmed that the investment cost $400,000.
Wothke, a German national who is based between Germany and Tobago, has done extensive work in both Trinidad and Tobago since 1992
He noted that the oyster farm was implemented with the assistance of Tobago’s fisherfolk and the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).
In sharing further details, Wothke said the project was designed to test the viability of oyster-based sustainable mariculture in the North-East Tobago UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve. The goal of the project is to establish a productive and lucrative enterprise in the coming years.
The UNESCO’s website noted that the North-East Tobago reserve is located in the South-East Caribbean Sea in T&T.
The reserve encompasses 83,488 hectares, including a large marine and terrestrial area.
Included in the reserve is one of the oldest legally protected tropical forests, the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve.
Wothke said before the oyster project got off the ground, expertise was sourced from professors from the UK and the US to properly ascertain its viability.
“The project is a sustainable blue economic activity project which aims at building climate resilience for fishermen,” he said adding that this is especially important as the severe impact of climate change continues to affect the fishing industry dramatically.
In addition to this, Wothke said is the problem of declining fish stock–resulting in increased prices over the last few years–and the fact that the fish are also getting smaller.
Therefore, Wothke said fishermen need to find alternative income sources that are not only financially rewarding but are also environmentally sustainable and have good market value.
“We thought about what fishermen could do and Tobago is quite weak in mariculture and we came up with the idea of oyster farming,” Wothke said on the genesis of the project. Mariculture is the farming of marine organisms for food and other products such as pharmaceuticals, food additives, jewelry (eg, cultured pearls), nutraceuticals, and cosmetics.
The oysters are also of a particular species.
They are Crassostrea virginica (aka Eastern Oyster) which were grown in the clear Caribbean Sea off Pirates Bay, Charlotteville.
On why this particular type of oyster was selected, Wothke said it is known for its meaty texture and unique salty flavour; have a relatively deep, elongated, rough, spoon-shaped shell with rose-coloured streaks that is grey-white to grey-brown in hue.
A light-coloured fringe (the gill) and creamy to light-brown flesh can be found inside.
“These oysters are sterile and therefore, they cannot do any harm to the environment or run away. We fly in the baby oysters and let them grow for about six to seven months and then we can harvest them.
“We are also trying to establish a young cohort of fishermen who have another source of income,” Wothke explained.
Additionally, he said oyster farming is a highly sustainable form of mariculture that needs to be developed in Tobago.
Wothke noted that these oysters are ideal as they also have no negative impact on the fragile reef ecosystems, remove nitrogen and carbon, can be introduced without consuming much fuel and the shells can be used to create new artificial reefs to increase biodiversity in bays.
The oysters will be ready in June and Wothke is hoping this will be the first of many batches.
However, there is already a high demand for them even before they are harvested.
“We told people to place their request on a register so when the oysters are ready we can contact them. We got about 40 people from restaurants, hotels and private persons who want the oysters from both T&T but what we have is not enough.
“The demand is very high moreso in Trinidad than in Tobago but definitely we cannot even supply the demand at the moment,” Wothke said.
To meet the request, he said the next step will be to increase production about ten times, which he hopes will begin around July/August this year.
“Now we want to go to 100,000 oysters. We were willing to take the risk. We tried and now we are very happy,” Wothke added.
In this regard, he hopes funding will be extended for the second part of the project.
“The first target will obviously be the Tobago market. We are very aware that restaurants and hotels need consistency, quality and supply so we tried to reduce the shipping cost and time.
One oyster, he said can sell for around $10.
Once funding is secured and production is ramped up for phase two, more fishermen will be engaged.
“At the moment there are five fishermen who are engaged in the project and they are trained and we are looking to establish oyster farms for them,” Wothke added.
Depending on the success of this venture, he said there is a strong possibility of supplying not only more businesses across the country but also Grenada and Barbados with more fishermen coming onboard.
Noting that oysters are a delicacy, Wothke said this also can create a unique culinary industry for T&T.
“Once we get the new grant we will work with the Tobago Hospitality Institute and get some chefs to train vendors in Charlotteville to prepare the oysters.
“Ideally we hope what Maracas is to shark and bake that Charlotteville will become the oyster capital,” Wothke added.
Innovative approach for economic development-bpTT
The Business Guardian also reached out to bpTT’S vice president corporate operations Giselle Thompson who said, “We are proud to support this pilot project by ERIC because it is an innovative approach to providing opportunities for economic development in the Charlotteville community.
“It has also been great to see the project progress from an idea to results with the first harvest. This is one of two projects bpTT is supporting in Tobago which is focused on the connection between the protection of natural resources and sustainable livelihood. ERIC has demonstrated that oyster farming can be a viable way to provide business opportunities while protecting the environment.”