Mussels, Sewage & Science: A History of the Benarth Mussel Tanks

Members and visitors assembled at Peniel Chapel on Thursday 17th January 2019 to hear our speaker for the evening give us a fascinating presentation on the subject of mussels. Conwy mussels are famous internationally but few of the audience, myself included, knew much about the mollusc.

Our speaker Stephen Lockwood is a marine fishery biologist who has spent his career working with, for and alongside UK commercial fishermen. In the mid-1980s he became director of the Fisheries Laboratory, Conwy until its closure in 1999. The role of the Conwy Laboratory was to undertake research into fish and shellfish cultivation and the effects of fishing on the marine environment. The Conwy mussel fishery and fishermen and their connection with the laboratory was the subject of this talk.

Mussels, Sewage & Science

The first part of Stephen’s presentation was a look at mussels in terms of their characteristics and types. The need for regulation of the mussel beds was explained with the aid of interesting slides which demonstrated where the Conwy mussel beds are located and how the mussels are gathered. Apparently a particularly unusual rake is used locally for this purpose and the speaker commented that he had only seen it in Conwy and in Long Island USA.

The discussion of mussels led to the problems which eating them can cause. In the 19th and early 20th century, due to increased urbanisation and population growth, untreated sewage was discharged in the River Conwy with resulting intestinal problems for those who ate the mussels. In 1912 the health authorities closed the fishery. A year later Conwy corporation appointed an eminent bacteriologist, Robert Dodgson (no relation to Charles “Lewis Carroll” Dodgson) to research the problem. He designed a simple reliable method of purification for the mussels which became a model adopted throughout the world. We were shown an interesting film showing us the fishery and how the purification method operated.

The final part of the presentation brought us up to the present day as the speaker gave us slides on other molluscs, crustaceans and fish. These included oysters, king scallops, lobsters, turbot and Dover sole. The Conwy laboratory played a leading role in developing techniques for commercial production of these species, techniques which are used throughout the world.

This was an interesting talk which was enhanced by the presence of a fisherman who currently collects mussels from the River Conwy. Stephen was an extremely knowledgeable and engaging speaker and the audience were most appreciative.

Diane Williams

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