The producers of the famed oysters at Whitstable in Kent are facing financial ruin after the indefinite closure of the oyster beds because of a health scare.

The producers of the famed oysters at Whitstable in Kent are facing financial ruin after the indefinite closure of the oyster beds because of a health scare.

The crisis follows the discovery of an algae-born bug, diarrhoetic shellfish poisoning (DSP), in the beds off the north Kent seaside town and comes just three years after the Whitstable beds won protected geographic location status for its oysters under European law.

As a result of the closure, Seasalter Shellfish (Whitstable) Ltd, which owns the oyster beds, has been forced to make five of its 22-strong workforce redundant, give up its harbourside offices and sell off one of its hatcheries.

"We are desolate," said Ms Elaine Kirkaldie, a partner in the company. "We are in real trouble and we can only wait to see how much deeper that will get."

DSP, which has never before affected the Whitstable waters, causes diarrhoea and sickness within hours of eating infected shellfish. It was discovered during routine monitoring three weeks ago - not in the oysters themselves, but in the cockles and clams which share the beds, and which are owned by the company.

Indeed, the firm has been doubly hit by misfortune. It also sells seed oysters, mainly to Ireland, which then supplies the French oyster market. But because of pollution fears after the Erika oil disaster in Brittany before Christmas,French demand has dropped sharply.

Marine biologist John Bayes, the firm's managing director, said that the business would normally be selling 20 tons of cockles a week, as well as oysters and clams if his beds were open. "It is costing us about £1,000 a day and that just can't go on indefinitely."

He believes the infection may be due to the wet spring following two dry summers. "It is possible that all the rain has washed nutrients into the estuary, which have turned it into a soup ideal for the algae to breed," he says. "The thing about the Thames estuary normally is that there is a good exchange of seas to flush everything away."

Scientists are monitoring the shellfish weekly; a minimum of two consecutive all-clears are needed before the area can be deemed safe.

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