Essex estuary home of oyster restoration bid
Mother oysters will be laid on the bed of a river estuary in a bid to replenish stocks of the shellfish in the UK.
The Essex Native Oyster Restoration Initiative (ENORI) will begin work to create a sanctuary for the molluscs.
"Recycled" shells will be laid on the bed of the Thames Estuary to provide the hard surface the young oysters need to grow on.
Over the last 200 years the oyster population has suffered a 95% decline.
ENORI is chaired by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and is a coalition of oystermen, local communities, NGOs, universities and the UK Government.
Oyster farming has been recorded in Mersea since Roman times, but the populations of the European native, or Colchester oyster, Ostrea edulis, have suffered dramatic declines.
The recycled shells come from Mersea-bred oysters, sold in London's Borough Market and West Mersea, as well as cockleshells from the Thames cockle fleet.
The process is known colloquially as "laying the cultch" and once it is done and conditions are right adult female oysters will be laid with spawning expected to begin within weeks, ENORI said.
ZSL senior conservation programme manager Alison Debney 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."
She added ENORI had moved more than 25,000 native oysters to Essex estuaries, as well as ensured that fishing was prohibited until stocks had recovered, since it formed in 2013.