French oyster farmers are sounding the alarm that their business is on the verge of collapse. The much-loved mollusc is at risk of disappearing from plates due to a virus that is wiping out populations.
The herpes virus is devastating oyster populations
Over the past three years, the "huitres creuses" or cupped oysters Laurence Maheo produces have been struck by the herpes virus, which has been killing vast numbers of baby oysters throughout France and the rest of Europe.
"It's very possible that in three or four years there won't be anymore oyster farmers in France," she said last week at the Salone del Gusto, a five-day event organized by Slow Food, an international movement for the protection of biodiversity and traditional food production.
Natural oysters take three years to reach maturity but the virus is now killing an average of 80 percent of French cupped oysters in their infancy and Maheo, the owner of La Gavrinis oyster farm - a family business started in 1929 and which she inherited from her father - is pessimistic about their future.
"How many oyster farmers can survive on 20 percent of their oyster production?" she asked. "There's always been a small percentage of mortality but 80 percent is untenable."
Many oyster farmers have had to let go of staff and even close down their businesses, and the situation is now critical.
Natural oyster producers believe that the main cause of the rampant spread of the virus was the introduction of laboratory manipulated and reproduced triploid oysters.
Maheo maintains her family's oyster farm
Artificially created to have three sets of chromosomes instead of two, these sterile oysters grow much more quickly than natural diploid oysters because they do not go through the reproduction season.
While diploid oysters take three or four years to reach maturity, spawning during the summer, triploids grow all year and take just 18 months to reach full size.
Maheo said she remembers when all oysters were seasonal like hers.
"The oyster was an expensive luxury product," she said. "But today oysters are like potatoes. They weren't meant to be basic foods, but people have wanted to make lots of money out of them so they've found a way of producing much larger quantities which they can sell all year."
Triploid oysters look almost the same, except for a little lip on the shell, and not even Maheo can taste the difference.
Since they grow twice as fast and produce good quality, meaty oysters, their market potential has been very attractive to oyster farmers like Patrice Lafont. Although he produces mostly natural oysters, 25 percent of his oyster larvae are triploid.
The price of oysters is likely to continue going up
"For me it's a necessity," he said. "If you set up a business like I did, that isn’t an inherited family farm, you have to buy your stock which means you have to get a bank loan and pay it back. You have to be able to produce oysters permanently. You can’t stop working for a few months when they're spawning, with no produce to sell."
But Maheo said she believes the manipulation of nature for economic gain has once again backfired.
"We've shot ourselves in the foot because in the very near future the virus is going to kill all the oysters and nobody will have any anymore," she said.
Scientific questions unanswered
Lafont said he's worried that the virus, which has been present for years but far less aggressive, may have mutated in the triploids.
Beauvais' menu planning will suffer from an oyster shortage
"We’re asking where the virus came from," he said. "We don’t know and the scientists are still unable to tell us."
Oyster farmers are waiting for answers from Ifremer, the French oceanographic institute that supplies them with diploid and triploid larvae. They also want to see a law passed that would oblige producers to label their oysters.
"Today you can sell oysters without telling the consumer if they’re triploid or not," Lafont said. "They should know if they're eating something natural or not."
While French oyster producers wait for scientific answers and hope for a solution, the impact on their customers is already being felt.
Arnaud and Nathalie Beauvais own the Jardin Gourmand restaurant in Brittany, which serves traditional local cuisine. Their oyster producer has already warned them that he may not have enough to supply them this Christmas, “and perhaps in January we won’t have oysters in our restaurant," Arnaud said.
His wife, Nathalie, said her cuisine will no longer be the same.
"I cook fish with oysters and it's a very well-known recipe in my restaurant," she said. "For the region, for the guests, for the producers: it's a disaster."
Lafont admitted that he is also worried about the future, with such a low survival rate of young oysters. He said prices have risen dramatically because supplies have fallen to such an extent.
Speaking publicly about the problem at Slow Food's international event, Maheo said oyster producers have been reluctant to talk openly about the virus for fear of further damage to their devastated businesses.
The virus is not dangerous to humans, only affects cupped oysters, and is not present in oysters that reach maturity.
Author: Dany Mitzman /sms
Editor: Kyle James