A deadly virus is stalking France’s coastline, killing at least 60 percent of the young oysters there since 2008. Japan’s earthquake and tsunami may have wiped out the latest rescue plan.
The March 11 natural disasters destroyed the fishing industry in Miyagi prefecture, which produced 80 percent of Japan’s oyster seeds in 2009. That is forcing France to abandon plans to import and breed Miyagi’s Pacific oyster species, and find another solution for diners seeing fewer, and more costly, options.
The French eat about 108,000 metric tons of the mollusks, typically on the half-shell atop a bed of ice and garnished with a squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar. Domestic production fell 38 percent last year, driving up wholesale prices 20 percent. Some brasseries in Paris sell the largest oysters for 6.5 euros ($9.17) apiece.
“This delays our exit from the crisis,” Maryline Maingam, a spokeswoman for France’s National Shellfish Committee, said in an interview. “There will still be oysters, but a lot less than before. For the next two years, we’ll have 40 percent to 50 percent production losses.”
France, whose oyster industry was worth about 400 million euros in 2010, imported young Miyagi oysters in October and February to test their resistance to the virus, a variant of Ostreid herpesvirus 1, or OsHV-1. That required special permission from the European Commission to circumvent 1991 restrictions on importing oysters for breeding.
$3.3 Billion Industry
Test results are expected this month, yet “the dramatic events in Japan in March 2011 have altered the chances of success of the Japanese track,” Veronique Lopes, a spokeswoman for the French Ministry of Agriculture, said in an e-mail.
The ministry is drawing up a new list of potential importers with “sufficient health guarantees,” she said.
Japanese oysters also are less attractive because of the possibility their beds were contaminated by radiation leaking from a damaged nuclear-power plant on the coast in neighboring Fukushima prefecture, Lopes said.
The virus is not just a blow to France, Europe’s biggest producer. The global industry, worth at least $3.3 billion in 2009, has been plagued by OsHV-1 in Ireland, England and Australia.
In Ireland, Europe’s second-largest producer, about half of the bays where Pacific oysters are grown have been affected by the virus since 2008. Research has suggested “a very strong association” with imports of oyster seeds from France, said John Joyce, a spokesman for the Irish Marine Institute based in Galway.
The virus starts killing oysters when water temperatures top about 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit). It has reappeared along the French coast this year and mostly affects oysters under one year old, Tristan Renault, director of the genetics and pathology laboratory at the French Research Institute for Exploration of the Sea in La Tremblade, said in a phone interview.
Oysters need three years to mature, so the past winter was the first to show the effect on supply, Maingam said.
“We’re starting to feel it,” said Rodolphe Ziegler, a manager for seafood wholesaler Demarne Freres Ets. at Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market, outside Paris. “We’re starting to see a problem with deliveries of small sizes.”
Oyster production declined to 80,000 tons from 130,000 tons last year in France, Maingam said. Wholesale prices are 20 percent higher than a year ago, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies in Paris.
The problem may worsen after 2012, when many of the French colonies wiped out by the virus would have been ready for the table. That’s also when the Japanese-imported oysters would have been growing.
Miyagi oystermen already have lost this year’s harvesting season, and they won’t be able to plant seeds for the breeding season typically beginning in July. Fishing and farming were suspended all along Miyagi’s coast because of efforts to locate the 9,000 people still missing after the natural disasters.
Oysterman Taro Abe in Onagawa village lost everything.
“Our wharf and processing facility were completely destroyed,” said Abe, who now spends his time searching for mementos and remnants of his home. “All I have left is debt.”
The Miyagi oysters, whose scientific name is Crassostrea gigas, are more resistant to infectious diseases than other species and have a history of being sent abroad to jumpstart farming or revive crops devastated by illness. It is now the most widely farmed oyster species in the world, Renault said.
Miyagi oysters came to France’s rescue in the 1970s after the iridovirus killed most of the oyster population. The oysters also have been transplanted to more than 30 countries, including the U.S., China, South Korea, Spain and New Zealand.
“Crassostrea gigas has been cultivated all around the world, showing it is capable of adapting to different environments,” Renault said.
Oystermen prefer Miyagi’s seeds because the oysters also are free of a parasite found elsewhere in Japan, Renault said.
Now Japan may have to increase oyster imports to keep prices stable. To help Miyagi get back on its feet, iLink Systems Inc., an oyster distributor based in Sendai, in Miyagi prefecture, started the Save Sanriku Oysters project that is taking donations for new boats, farming equipment and facilities. Sanriku refers to the northeast coast that includes Miyagi.
“Particularly for farmers in their 60s carrying debts, there is talk of giving up,” said Hiroaki Saito, president of iLink.
Given the traumatic experience from the disasters, which left at least 400 fishermen dead or missing in Miyagi alone, money is not the only obstacle, said Katsutoshi Mori, president of the World Oyster Society.
“It’s a question of regaining spirit,” he said.
That leaves French wholesalers waiting and hoping for another rescue plan. The government is making 42 million euros a year available to support the farmers. Yet some smaller operations are shutting down because they aren’t producing enough healthy shellfish, Ziegler said.
“If the mortality continues, this year will be tight, and next year, also,” he said.