Governing tourists’ foraging of mussels and oysters

In tourism there is a continuous claim for innovative products and services. Culinary experiences are highly valued and a distinct focus in the branding and promotion of many local areas. Food tells good stories. A new and upcoming trend in tourism and gastronomy is foraging: experiences where tourists collecting their own food in nature, and potentially subsequently prepare and eat the food in or in the close vicinity of the place where the food was collected. This suggests a totality of landscapes, weather conditions, and edible materials constitute an experiential symbiosis. Hunting and angling tourism are well-known examples of foraging tourism, and practices and facilities have developed. But these years the trend is supplemented by for example the picking of berries, mushrooms, herbs, wild fruit, and even insects.

On Denmark’s west coast, oysters and mussels are found, and often in quite substantial amounts. The resource of mussels and oysters is increasingly becoming a leisure foraging resource exploited by locals as well as tourists. Commercial fishing is an activity that is rigidly controlled and governed, among others by the EU fisheries policies, but also in national implementations. However, the governance structures are, however, generally geared towards commercial fishing, not fully the leisure exploitation. The case study looks into the governance and the potential need for governance innovation concerning foraging of oysters.

Overall, governance innovations can be characterized as changes in content and methods of rulemaking, rulesetting and rule implementation. They are innovations in the way that actors make something happen and the way that they change incentives. Governance innovations can embody new approaches for institutions to be built and modified, and they can include new arrangements that rearticulate the state-civil relationship, thereby repositioning the meaning of citizenship (Swyngedoduw, 2005).

The oysters on the Danish Westcoast are controversial in the sense that it is an invasive species. The population has been increasing on the expense of other habitats, for example mussels. Collecting oysters may be an environmentally positive activity, as it leaves space for the mussels, which are far more important than oysters for the feeding of millions of migrating birds. The Wadden Sea is a national park and designated as UNESCO World Heritage, a fishing regulation is a matter of importance for the subtle nature balances. The shellfish feed the birds. Fishing is an activity that, when undertaken unsustainably, can disturb the ecosystem as a whole.

If the risks with the capricious tides are taken into account and trips are planned accordingly, it is quite simple to forage oysters and mussels in the Wadden Sea. The water is normally shallow and the oyster beds are accessible from the shore. Foragers bring a bucket, and with some endeavor they can collect themselves luxurious evening meal. If they do not wish to conquer the elements on their own, local tour guides provide tours to the oyster beds. Some of the guided tours include not only interpretation and assistance in the collecting, but also champagne and accompanying food items for the party on the beach after the colleting. These oyster safaris are becoming more popular. Oyster festivals have been inaugurated lately as an element in a comprehensive Wadden Sea Festival, the restaurants eager to contribute to the portfolio of experiences.

For private people there is an open and free access to the oyster resource, and they can collect for their consumption. Fishing with tools requires a license, but picking the product with the hands not. In the Wadden Sea there is (for the time being) no commercial exploitation allowed, because of the Natura 2000 status. In this context tour guiding companies are not considered commercial fishing entities. This is a matter which has been examined by legal experts, and no reasons have been identified to change it.  

One of the main concerns about foraging oysters and mussels in the Wadden Sea is connected to the food safety. The oyster seasons are autumn and winter. In the summer period there are risks of toxic phytoplankton in the area. The touristic seasons and oyster season are not in sync. Tourists who, during the summer, are not aware of the risks, may be in danger of getting sick if they eat the oysters and mussels.

The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration is in charge of the continuous supervision of the quality of the oysters and their living conditions. Weekly tests are made in a surveillance program. According to the regulations, only commercial providers of fish are obliged to take samples to be sent to examination with authorized test institutes. The authorities can prohibit fishing and landing of oysters if problems are determined with toxic phytoplankton.The findings constitute the basis of quality control. However, insights into the sources of contamination are not fully mapped. 

The tour guiding companies underline that collecting and eating is at the tourists’ own risk. If the authorities identify quality problems, warnings are issued. Guided tours will normally be cancelled. Contrary to the Wadden Sea in Germany and The Netherlands, where the tourism pressure is heavier, there is no access control the foraging areas and, at the moment, no possibilities to close the areas efficiently.

Warnings of toxic contamination are communicated via the press and through The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration’s Facebook wall, which has 16,000 followers (not all interested in oysters, though). The algae situation is discussed a lot in the local area, a matter of great concern for the citizens and the media, who want to see the environment “clean” and “safe”. However, the communication from the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration is undertaken only in Danish, even if the area is a popular touristic destination for particularly visitors from Germany, who do not necessarily understand the language. There is no clear knowledge about how efficiently information is disseminated to potential oyster pickers.

Systematic surveillance and information are the main governance instruments. Information is possibly fully sufficient as long as the number of foragers for oysters and mussels remain fairly low, and as long as they participate in guided tours. The oyster stock is plenty enough, and keeping the invasive species somewhat down through the recreational picking is regarded as environmentally beneficial. However, an increase in the popularity of foraging could demand the development of new and wide-ranging communication instruments or regulation of access. The inclusion real-time in touristic apps is an opportunity might fit the problem well, but no such app has been developed yet.

Around the world, “early warning” and “safety tips” systems have been introduced to mitigate risks for tourists, for example in earthquake area or in destination in risk of flooding. Such apps could also be informative in the sense that they could lead tourists to well supplied (and safe) resources. Neither the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration nor the tourism DMO’s and interpretation bodies have yet worked with such opportunities.

Efficient information systems real-time can prolong the possibility for tourists to act freely and without restrictions and supervision in their foraging endeavor. On the other hand, radically increased interest in the foraging in nature, and/or decreased aquatic quality can provoke discussions of such types of access control. However, in a wider perspective, access restrictions are not considered very compatible with the Danish tourism policies that favor open exploration opportunities in nature environments.

In terms of regulation, the food policies have gradually recognized the importance of local food provision, among others for the benefit of tourism. In 2016 the authorization regulations were changed for fish and shellfish, now allowing fishermen to sell smaller amounts to local retailers and directly to consumers right off the boat or off the shore. In fact this is largely a modest legalization of a widespread illegal practice. A former requirement to sell via safety certified dealers has been removed for such smaller amounts. The change in regulations might stimulate locals to start businesses with mussels and oysters as products. Due to EU fisheries regulations and quota, commercial or semi-commercial fishing licenses are matters of quite some entry barriers. The costs of the weekly testing for toxins are carried by the single fisherman or collaborative groups of fishermen, a regulation that does not favor small scale fishing communities. There is a growing interest in the Wadden Sea area to develop sustainable fishery and adequate governance structures, including such initiatives that go hand in hand with foraging, culinary services and interpretation. Efforts will be made after a more accurate scientific investigation of the size of the stock in 2017-2018.

The efforts to allow an expansion is highly controversial, as long as the stock assessments are lacking, and as long as the fishing methods are unsettled. Both guiding companies and nature scientists refer to the ecosystems, which take long time to recover after mechanized harvesting methods. Accordingly, this case demonstrates that touristic oyster foraging in the Wadden Sea is matter that is likely to be a continual issue in regulatory interventions, directions of such still to be settled.   

 

Further reading:

Christoffersen, M., Dolmer, P., Sørensen, T. K., Dinesen, G. E., Geitner, K., Larsen, F., … & Lisbjerg, D. (2014). Fiskeriforvaltning i Natura 2000 områder.

Dolmer, P., Holm, M. W., Strand, Å., Lindegarth, S., Bodvin, T., Norling, P., & Mortensen, S. (2014). The invasive Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, in Scandinavia coastal waters: A risk assessment on the impact in different habitats and climate conditions. Institute of Marine Research.

Hall, C. M. (2013). Why forage when you don’t have to? Personal and cultural meaning in recreational foraging: a New Zealand study. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 8(2-3), 224-233.

Mossot, G., & Duvat, V. (2013). The establishment of a sustainable management policy for coastal foraging (Oléron, France). In F. D. Pineda (ed). Tourism and Environment, Boston: Wit Press. 1-12.

Swyngedouw, E. (2005). Governance innovation and the citizen: the Janus face of governance-beyond-the-state. Urban studies, 42(11), 1991-2006.

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