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 

Paris

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
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

£45,000 - £55,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified accountant...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor