French oyster-lovers brace for Christmas shell-shock

A watery winter sun breaks through banks of grey cloud scudding over the chilly seas off Cancale in northwestern France, home to some of the country's finest oyster beds. The question is, for how much longer?

For the past two and a half years a mystery virus known as OsHV-1 has been decimating stocks of young oysters throughout France, and in Cancale on the Mont Saint Michel bay people are getting seriously worried.

"My family's been in this business for four generations and it's tough for us. For the young ones trying to set up in the trade it's unbelievably difficult," Matthieu Le Moal, a 31-year-old who runs two local oyster beds as well as a shellfish restaurant in the town, told AFP.

Since oysters take two and a half to three years to grow to edible size, this is the first year the virus' effect will fully be felt by consumers.

France's national committee for shellfish farming (CNC) estimates that this Christmas and New Year, the high season for oyster lovers, stocks will be 40 percent lower than in a normal year.

The shortage is expected to mean price rises, with consumers warned oysters are likely to be at least 15 percent more expensive.

In the Breton capital Rennes, shoppers visiting the oyster stalls at the bustling outdoor market, flanked by 17th-century half-timbered buildings, are already noticing the hikes.

"It's worrying. It's a considerable price rise and I'm concerned they'll get even more expensive," said Renee Cotin, an impeccably dressed Frenchwoman.

"They've got noticeably more expensive, especially this year," added Annick Viot.

But the industry is warning that unless a solution to the killer virus can be found rapidly, the shortages for the current 2009/2010 season will be just the tip of the iceberg.

The CNC argues that in a normal year the industry should produce around 130,000 tonnes of oysters.

"But that could drop to 80,000 tonnes in 2010/2011 and 50,000 the following season," CNC chairman Goulven Brest has warned.

The prospect of an impending oyster shortage also has the restaurant industry worried.

Olivier Roellinger, one of France's best known chefs who runs a luxury seafood restaurant in Cancale, said his suppliers had yet to increase their prices but that he understood hikes were likely.

"I completely support the oyster growers and sympathise with the situation they are in," he added.

The scale of the losses of young oysters is impressive. The French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER), the scientific body tasked with tackling the virus, described the deaths as "massive and devastating."

In 2009, the last year for which full figures are available, IFREMER said the death rate reached 80 to 100 percent in some batches of cup-shaped "huitres creuses," the most commonly produced oysters in France.

There is no sign the situation has improved in 2010 and efforts to find a solution to the crisis have so far drawn a blank.

As part of an emergency government support programme for the industry, IFREMER recently began supplying oyster growers with a specially-produced strain of resistant or "R" oysters, supposed to be immune to the virus.

But these "super oysters" appear to have turned out just as susceptible to the disease as any others.

"The scientific studies were encouraging, but in practice we have seen very high death rates ranging from 50 to 100 percent for certain batches," said Brest, whose organisation is no longer advising growers to use the "R" variety.

The industry is currently pinning its hopes on new oyster strains imported from abroad, notably Japan, which it hopes will be resistant to the virus.

In the meantime, the oyster growers of Cancale are living from day to day, hoping that a few years from now they'll still be out in all weathers tending to their beloved bivalves.