Balkans Prized oysters under threat

The species’ cultivation in the region stretches back centuries. But now businesses fear hydropower plants could destroy their trade states a report by The Independent.

The world is your oyster…

Bode Sare, a 62 year old, living in Croatia, well-known as a tumultuous region, has led an eventful life. Sare has been a partisan warrior, a weapons smuggler, a cafe owner and imprisoned twice.

Currently, Sare is the owner of a small chain of seafood restaurants in Croatia. He champions locally grown oysters. Sare is part of a collective of 75 farmers. They tend the oyster beds in Mali Ston bay, part of the Adriatic Sea along the southern Croatian coast.

Aphrodisiacs = Large Families

Sare’s son, Tomislav, is part of the family business. One early morning, he guides the family’s boat past the plastic markers, marking the collective’s oyster beds. He stops at one floating pontoon to pluck a string of European flat oysters, known as Ostrea Edulis, from the water. He quickly shucks a dozen, tops them with a touch of lemon and smiles.

“Be careful, it is true what they say,” he says. “There is a reason Croatians have big families.”

Hydropower plants threaten oyster beds

Oysters have been cultivated for centuries. They have also been a part of a staple diet stretching back to Roman rule. Wars and political upheaval, may have disrupted harvesting, but it never ended.

Sare emphasises that, “Oysters, like the people living along the Dalmatian coast, are survivors”. “Around 5 million of the bivalves are pulled from the waters every year”, he adds.

However, the threat comes from the swift and significant change to the ecosystem brought on by the headlong rush in the Balkans to embrace hydropower, often with little regard to the broader environmental consequences.

Environmental impact from new dams

In a region still heavily reliant on coal, hydropower offers a clean and relatively cheap alternative energy source. Across the western Balkans, about 3,000 hydropower plant projects are under way or being planned – a 300 per cent increase from just two years ago, according to a study by Fluvius, an ecological consultancy in Vienna.

Farmers fear that their oyster populations will be affected by new dams.
They are mostly concerned about projects that would involve damming the Neretva river, which flows from Bosnia into Croatia and then empties into the bay.

Recently a plan was scrapped at the last minute, to build a dam in Bosnia on the river, when a Chinese company pulled out of the project.

Local residents who depend on the bay fear that it is just a temporary reprieve. They worry that other projects in Bosnia could be pursued.

Bosnia is still split by ethnic division, so political decisions are often made along ethnic lines, with little thought for the effect on the nation as a whole, much less on adjacent countries.

Mario Radibratovic’s family has been farming oysters here for more than 500 years. Now a member of the oyster-farming collective, he worries about what will happen to the oysters if the hydrodam on the Neretva river is revived.

Radibratovic explains “Oysters are only as good as the waters that feed them”.

The unique blend of nutrients from the salt in the sea mixing with the freshwater from the rivers, with a rich bed of phytoplankton on the seafloor, creates the crisp, balanced flavour in the local oysters.

“The oysters need the freshwater from the river, and the proposed dam will cut that off and kill the ecosystem”, Radibratovic says.

Survival of the fittest

A fertilised oyster egg can only develop in warm water, above 21ºc. That’s if they’ve survived being consumed by natural predators. The lucky few develop into free-swimming larvae, which float about as they like for a few weeks.

Tomislav, explains the farming process, “The young oysters are captured in a net and after a year the ones deemed mature enough are cemented to a rope. For two years, they live hanging in the sea until harvest time”.

A true survivor

Bode Sare started his seafood empire and opened his first cafe in 1980, it was not much more than a small shack on the side of the road that runs along the bay.

Mali Ston and the adjacent city of Ston were Medieval fortresses and became renowned for the 3.5-mile Great Wall. Sare remembers the days before the war when “there were plenty of tourists to feed”.

Sare recounts that, local businesses did not know how to cater to their needs, especially foreign visitors. Stating that “In socialism, what you get is warm wine”. But he saw that tourists had different tastes and needs and adapted to their requirements, noting that, “Italians liked short coffee and the English black coffee”.

Sare, was doing very well financially and caught the eye of the authorities. But he refused to give local officials a cut. Costing him the label as ‘enemy of the state’, when some vandals were caught near his cafe urinating on a monument to anti-fascist fighters, he was sent to jail.

Sare took up arms with the Croat nationalists a few years later when the war broke out in Yugoslavia and he was yet again briefly imprisoned for smuggling weapons.

However, Sare has since become one of the most successful restaurateurs in Croatia, expanding from his flagship restaurant in Mali Ston to outposts in Split, Dubrovnik and Zagreb.

And the oyster remains the draw at all the restaurants, so he hopes no dam or ethnic division ever affects their farming or flavour.

“Oysters know nothing of nationalities or ethnicities,” Sare says. “But politicians? They prosper on dividing people. So instead of protecting this heritage, they are still fighting about things stretching back to the Second World War.”

Editor: Victoria Rose

Related Article: New study findings on benefits of oyster aquaculture

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