A NEW innovative conservation project has launched to help save the world famous Colchester oyster following a dramatic decline in its population.

Due to overfishing over the last 200 years the species has suffered a 95 per cent population drop. The species’ recovery has also been hindered by problems with habitat loss, pollution and new diseases.

Natural replenishment of their native grounds is now so limited scientists believe human intervention is the oysters only hope of survival.

This is where the Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative (ENORI) comes in.

Now a coalition of oystermen, community groups, universities, including the University of Essex, the Government and the Zoological Society of London have teamed up.

The group, known as the Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative (ENORI), is set to create the region’s first “Mother Oyster Sanctuary” in the Thames estuary.

Work has begun on creating the new habitat for the oysters using recycled shells from oysters bred in Mersea and sold in the capital’s Borough Market.

This process is called “laying the cultch” and provides oysters with the hard surface needed for them to grow - something not naturally present in the estuary beds of Essex.

Adult female oysters will then be laid and when the conditions are right will spawn, kicking off the first stages of the European native, or Colchester oyster’s lifecycle.

Marine biologists from the University of Essex are part of the innovative project.

Dr Tom Cameron, from the School of Biological Sciences, said: “This is a nationally unique project, as around many UK coastlines native oysters are close to extinction and none have stocks of this endangered oyster in the numbers that can still be found in Essex.

“Our research shows they provide benefits to local biodiversity, providing habitat for other species such as edible crab, but it also shows they are declining and need active management to recover the habitats they would have once had throughout the MCZ to allow their distribution and numbers to increase.”

Alison Debney, Zoological Society of London’s conservation programme manager, said: “It may not be glamorous work, but laying ‘mother oysters’ at the right time is vital to the success of the restoration programme, and therefore vital for the survival of this native British species.

“ENORI was founded in 2013 by the conservation coalition in an attempt to restore a nationally important breeding population that once supported hundreds of fishermen.

“The coalition has since moved more than 25,000 native oysters to Essex estuaries, as well as ensuring that fishing in the area is prohibited until the oyster stocks have sufficiently recovered and are able to withstand sustainable harvesting.”

Oysters are essential to the ecosystem of Essex’s coast as they filter water and provide food for other species. Farming of the species has taken place on Mersea since Roman times.

Visit zsl.org/MotherThames.