Oyster Virus in France Risks Making Delicacy `Rare as Caviar’
By Gregory Viscusi
Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) — Jean-Pierre Suire reaches into a nylon bag suspended in a tidal pool on the French Atlantic coast and takes out a dozen baby oysters, none larger than his thumbnail. They’re all he has left from 2,000 he bought in May.
A herpes-like virus has killed about 80 percent of France’s annual 130,000-ton oyster harvest this summer, threatening an industry that generates more than 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in yearly sales, according to researchers. The virus infected 12- to 18-month-old oysters that would be edible in 2010.
“For Christmas and New Year’s in 2010, oysters risk being as rare as caviar,” said Francois Patsouris, head of the producer’s association for the Atlantic region of Charente, where half of France’s oysters are raised.
Oyster growers are trying to replenish stocks. The French government said Aug. 20 it formed a committee to look into the losses, and will work with local authorities to iron out insurance payments.
Suire, who lost 50,000 euros on baby oysters, is spending the same amount to buy a new batch.
“It’s a disaster,” said Suire, 54. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Bruno Bergeon, 46, a producer who works out of an oyster shack under one of the bridges that cross the tidal estuaries in the Charente region, lost about 700,000 oysters in July, about half his planned output for 2010.
“We are living with the sword of Damocles over our heads,” said Bergeon, whose father and grandfather also were growers.
Oysters are normally eaten in their third year, and those due to be shucked this year and next aren’t affected by the virus, which thrived in the mild winter and wet spring.
Researchers at the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea found that tests in coastal waters this year showed larger than usual quantities of the Ostreid Herpes, or OsHV-1, virus as well as bacteria called Vibrio Splendidus.
The bacteria might have weakened the oysters, making them susceptible to the virus, said Tristan Renault, a researcher at the institute. The 60-member team at the institute, based in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, is continuing to research the causes of the infections.
“The oyster mortality seems to be part of the changing climatic conditions,” said Renault. Winter temperatures in 2007 and 2008 were 2 percent above average.
Oysters, or “huitres” in French, have been a delicacy in France since the 16th century, eaten raw with a squeeze of a lemon or vinegar over a glass of chilled white wine. They are displayed on beds of ice at restaurants in Paris and elsewhere in the country, particularly in autumn and winter.
The first oyster farming parks were created in 1866 in France, the largest producer of the shellfish in Europe and the fourth-largest globally behind China, Korea and Japan.
In Charente, about 4,000 people work directly for oyster producers and another 25,000 jobs are dependent on providing them with boats, equipment and transport, according to the local producers association.
Colorful oyster shacks line the side of Charente’s canals, not far from the flat-bottom boats moored amidst piles of nets and cages. The air is heavy with the smell of burning pines because of a popular local way of cooking mussels.
Oyster farms cover 3,200 hectares (8,000 acres) of Charente’s coastline. Local oysters are born in tidal estuaries and attach themselves to plastic poles placed by oyster farmers.
During their second year they are detached and placed in meter-long nylon bags laid on top of “beds” in shallow tidal water. They stay there for about two years, before being placed for a few weeks in basketball court-sized ponds in tidal marshes.
Almost all of France’s oysters are consumed domestically, with half of the year’s sales crammed into the weeks around Christmas and New Year. In 2006, France imported 3,163 tons of oysters and exported 7,300 tons.
The oyster disease hasn’t spread outside France’s borders, even through producers in southeast England are within 40 kilometers (25 miles). “We are keeping a close eye but, fingers crossed, we haven’t seen anything here,” said David Jarrad, associate director of Britain’s Shellfish Association.
France’s first oyster deaths were reported in late May in Normandy and Brittany, where most oysters are born in nurseries, and ceased in early June. The deaths resumed in late June, and by late July spread down the Atlantic coast to Charente as well as to the much smaller Mediterranean oyster industry.
Meanwhile, Suire and Burgeon are concentrating on saving the new babies they are buying.
“We just hope that the next set of babies don’t suffer the same fate,” said Bergeon. “If there’s another year like this one, there won’t be an oyster industry in France anymore.”
Last Updated: August 26, 2008 18:14 EDT