Great mollusc meltdown leaves French all at sea

Shellfish farmers are dumping their ruined catches outside town halls over a lack of measures to combat declining sea stocks. But disastrous environmental changes may be out of authorities’ control 


The jolly voicemail message on Cyril Pain’s mobile phone tells callers that if he doesn’t answer, “I must be out getting a suntan on my boat”. But this is no time for jokes in France’s oyster industry, the largest producer of the fleshy silver molluscs in Europe.

Mr Pain is the third generation of oyster farmers in his family on the Ile d’Oléron in south-western France where the bulk of the country’s shellfish production is harvested. He says that a combination of fatal disease, climate change and pollution has proved so devastating to the oyster beds that “the whole industry is threatened”.

On Tuesday, he joined about 300 shellfish farmers alarmed by the calamitous mortality rates, who dumped the shells of oysters, mussels and scallops outside administrative offices in La Rochelle. 

They are complaining about what they say is a general indifference by the government and local politicians to the “slow death of estuary and coastal ecosystems”.

They say the deteriorating environmental conditions are to blame for the mass fatalities in their industry which has a €360m (£287m) turnover.

Output has been slashed by a third: the oyster industry, which used to produce 120,000 tons of the shellfish nationwide in 2008, can now only count on 80,000 tons. A total of 30,000 tons are produced in the Charente-Maritime department where Mr Pain is based.

An oyster farmer works in his oyster beds in Etel, France An oyster farmer works in his oyster beds in Etel, France (Getty Images)
The shellfish farmers in the department say their losses amount to €50m as a result of the crisis.

Mr Pain says that “for the past two years, there have been very high numbers of dead oysters, so we can’t keep up our production. Now it’s happening to scallops and mussels too.”

He says the shellfish farmers have mobilised to warn the authorities “because when they wake up it’ll be too late”.

According to Mr Pain, the oyster farmers can lose up to 85 per cent of juveniles and 60 per cent of adult oysters.

Jean-Pierre Baud, a researcher with Ifremer, the French Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, says that in 2008, the juveniles were hit by a herpes virus, Os-HV1, which killed 50 to 60 per cent.

That disease was particularly ruinous for the bay of Arcachon, where most of those hatcheries are located. But since 2012 the adult oyster population has been attacked by a bacterium known as vibrio aestuarianus.

“That’s a new phenomenon,” he said. The bacterium is harmless to consumers.

Researchers believe that this “murder weapon”, coupled with the effects of climate change and environmental factors including pesticides and the presence of tourists, are to blame for the damage to the shellfish in recent years. “Climate change isn’t just temperature but storms and rain which can affect the maritime environment [notably by diluting the salt water],” Mr Baud added.

Is the oyster, one of nature’s sentinels, an endangered species in France? Mr Baud doesn’t think so. “It’s the industry which has been weakened economically,” he says, noting that the oysters themselves have a capacity  to adapt.

In the 1970s, the French oyster industry collapsed when the Portuguese oysters cultivated at the time succumbed to a viral disease, and were replaced by a more resistant Japanese variety, which now makes up 90 per cent of the world output.

Mr Pain said that friends of his had left France to try their luck in Ireland, but their stocks became diseased in that country too.

According to Mr Baud, oyster farmers as far away as New Zealand and Australia found a similar herpes virus in oysters two or three years ago, leading researchers to think that climate change could be a contributing factor.

Oysters are immersed in treated seawater Oysters are immersed in treated seawater (Getty Images)
The shellfish farmers’ regional committee, which has been campaigning since June, this week circulated a 10-point plan calling for qualitative and quantitative controls on freshwater and waste being channelled into the sea, and a halt to the dredging of mud from the La Rochelle marinas, which is dumped in the sea.

They are also demanding a study to determine the exact impact of environmental factors, including freshwater and pollution, on the mass shellfish fatalities. But Mr Pain says that the oyster farmers need financial help in order to survive. “We’re hurting financially, but the banks won’t help and when that happens people will go bust and that’s the end of it,” says Mr Pain. “It’s a disaster.”

A spokesman for the Charente-Maritime prefecture said yesterday that state assistance for stricken shellfish farmers would total €10m this year.

He noted that, in addition to the problems of the oyster farmers, since the beginning of this year the departments of Charente-Maritime and the Vendée had reported 100 per cent losses in their output of mussels.

The department’s prefect, Béatrice Abollivier, intends to set up a working group involving administrative officials, local politicians and shellfish farmers in order to consider the farmers’ demands, with the first meeting scheduled on 18 August.

But the prefecture says that measures have already been taken to minimise man-made pollution on the fragile maritime ecosystem.

Meanwhile, researchers are studying possible practical changes in oyster cultivation or genetic advances. Unfortunately, Mr Baud says, “there is no short-term solution”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy