Shell shocker: French oysters hit as mystery killer spreads

It could be the unusual weather, disease, or both, but something is laying waste to Gallic fisheries



A mysterious ailment is killing up to 80 per cent of adult oysters in shell fisheries around the French coast this summer, threatening an industry already weakened by a succession of crises.

The bizarre weather – weeks of rain and cold followed by tropical temperatures – is officially blamed for the sudden death of scores of thousands of oysters in south-western France, Brittany and Normandy.

But producers fear that an unknown disease may be devastating oyster beds, stricken since 2008 by a virus which massacres baby oysters. French output has been slashed by a third in the past four years.

"Some people are having to ration their sales," said Olivier Laban, president of the association of oyster producers in the Bay of Arcachon, near Bordeaux. "We were already producing relatively few oysters because of the deaths of juveniles in past years. Prices are very high and cannot really go higher."

The sudden death of adult oysters, just before they go on sale, is even more calamitous. "It means three years of work wiped out overnight," said Laurent Champeau, president of the shellfish producers in the La Rochelle area. "Our margin for manoeuvre is already practically nothing."

The demise of 15 to 80 per cent of the two- to three-year-old oysters in Arcachon, Poitou-Charentes, northern Brittany and Normandy may be caused by the strange weather pattern this year, experts believe. Incessant rain from May to early July reduced the salt content of the water in the mud flats where the oysters are reared. The heat wave since mid-July has further weakened the shellfish, making them vulnerable to disease.

Tristan Renault, of the French maritime research agency, Ifremer, said that a deadly bacterium, Vibrio aesturianus, had been found in many dead oysters. "This was the murder weapon but we still need to find the assassin," he said. "The unusual weather [is] probably to blame."

Shellfish producers fear, however, that the weather masks a longer-term problem. They point out that there has been a gradual increase in the mortality of adult oysters in the past two or three years – reminiscent, they say, of the slow onset of the disease which began to kill off tiny oysters in 2008 and 2009.

The massacre of the oyster innocents – three quarters still die each year – has been traced to a form of herpes virus, OsHV-1. Its sudden attack on the French shellfisheries has been blamed on global warming or pollution of sea water, or both.

Oyster production in France has fallen from 120,000 tons four years ago to around 80,000 tons last year.

French officials and producers' groups are anxious to point out that there is nothing in these diseases which makes surviving oysters dangerous to human health. Oyster fisheries in Arcachon Bay, the biggest in Europe, have suffered a rash of temporary closures after human health scares in recent years, but these are said to have no link to the ailments attacking baby and adult oysters.

Mr Laban points out that the death toll of adult oysters is most acute in hatcheries. "Wild oysters are not affected at all but the death rate among oysters reared in hatcheries is huge," he said. "We also notice that the oysters born in the wild are stricken if they are brought into the bassins d'affinage [rearing enclosures close to the shore]."

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam