The bay of Mali Ston, a village on the Pelješac peninsula, is an area traditionally devoted to mollusc farming. Only two species of molluscs are grown here, oysters (Ostrea edulis) and mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis).
Salt was historically one of the main sources of wealth in this area, but oysters made an even greater contribution to the wealth of Mali Ston. Some archaeological excavations along the Dalmatian coast have in fact shown evidence and traces of oyster farming dating back to Roman times. There are also written sources which attest to oyster farming in this part of Croatia: These documents, from the time of the Republic of Ragusa (1358-1808), contain information about the organization of oyster harvesting, as well as about the privileges and concessions that were granted to oyster farmers. It is thought that some nobles of Ragusa were paid in oysters instead of money, after having financed some of the oyster farms in the bay.
The Neretva River, which flows into the sea just up the coast from Mali Ston, carries minerals into the salty water of the the Bay of Mali Ston, and the seabed is particularly rich in phytoplankton. The oyster farming system is quite simple and has remained more or less the same over the years. The breeders lower ropes (or tube-shaped nets) into the water and, after 1 year, hoist them back up. The youngest oysters growing on the ropes are thrown back into the sea, while the larger ones are cemented in pairs to new ropes, at optimal spacing, and placed back in the water. Two years later, the oysters are ready to be harvested and sold for consumption. The system respects the oysters’ natural cycles: Harvest only takes place during the months of the year when the oysters are not reproducing, and only oysters that are 3 years of age are taken. In the past, branches were used instead of ropes. Today, all of the work is still carried out manually. In March, the oysters are at their most delicious, and are often eaten for the feast of Saint Joseph. They can be enjoyed freshly shucked and seasoned with some lemon juice. Each year there is a festival dedicated to the local molluscs, and this is one of the best opportunities to taste the oysters; they are prepared in many different ways, such as in soups, breaded, in risotto, or even roasted.
Today there are just a few people who possess legal concessions to breed and collect oysters. In recent years, due to increasing demand for this product, illegal fishing activities have been reported, which damage the environment and compromise the oysters’ ability to reproduce successfully.