The Passion
18th & 19th Century
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Belle Epoque
20th Century

French Terms

Coste and Oyster Cultivation
John McCabe

There is no bigger name in the history of oyster cultivation than that of Victor Coste. Not even the illustrious Roman oysterman Segius Orata can compete. Coste is considered by some today as "the father of modern oyster cultivation" in the Western world, although "the father of French oyster cultivation" is likely more appropriate.

Jean Jacques Marie Cyprien Victor Coste (1807-1873) was a prominent French biologist. As a professor at the Collège de France, he had made a name for himself in the scientific community in the area of embryology. Before he ever started to apply himself to oysters, he was already fairly well known in the European ivory towers of natural science. There were also some colleagues in the British scientific community that did not like him. At one point, they even accused him of committing what is considered the cardinal sin among scientists the world over, namely that of adorning one's cap with the feathers of another.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the once strictly enforced French harvesting regulations were increasingly ignored. In the 1830s, the oyster boom years began in France and Britain. Both French and British oystermen were dredging European oysters with a vengeance. By the early 1850s, the European oysters were getting scarce and many French oystermen were already struggling to stay in business. Similar evidence of over-harvesting was also observed along the British coast. The French Government took action while the British Government chose not to recognize any kind of "oyster problem".

Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873) was the President of France from 1849 to 1852, and, from 1852 to 1870, ruled as the (self-proclaimed) Emperor of France under the name "Napoléon III". He was an oyster lover of the first order. Successfully manipulated by the clever diplomacy of the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (incidentally another oyster lover), Napoléon III initiated the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871). In 1870, at the Battle of Sedan, the French forces were defeated by the German army (under Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia) and Napoléon III ended up being captured. In 1870, shortly after his capture, he was deposed. He spent the rest of his life in exile in Britain and died on January 9, 1873. Even in exile his love for oysters prevailed. He continued to insist on a steady supply of these tasty mollusks - particularly French ones.

Some time in the first half of the 1850s, Napoleon III summoned Victor Coste and asked him to come up with a national solution to the French oyster problem. I suspect that Napoleon III, at this time, was already far better informed about oyster cultivation than he is historically credited for. It is difficult to imagine that he was not. There can be little doubt that at least some members of the French aristocracy and the French scientific community were well informed about previous oyster cultivation efforts of another aristocrat, King Ferdinand IV of Naples (1751-1825). Temporarily, Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte (1768 – 1844), the elder brother of the French Emperor Napoleon I, was actually King of Naples from1806 to 1808). Ferdinand IV also entertained many aristocrats from all over Europe at his Villa on Lake Fusaro.

Oddly, Ferdinand IV is rarely remembered in the context of oyster cultivation. He could aptly be called the true "oyster king" and possibly be considered the actual "father of modern oyster cultivation". Not only did King Ferdinand IV love slurping oysters, he is likely the only king in history who was also a genuine oysterman. He had a beautiful villa built right smack in the middle of his beloved Lake Fusaro and seriously committed himself to cultivating European oysters on a grand scale. Not only did he cultivate boat loads of oysters, he was so excited about their remarkable flavor, that he insisted on selling them personally at the fish market in nearby Naples, proclaiming them to be the absolutely finest oysters imaginable. Although his down to earth way of mingling with the general population in this manner made him lots of friends among commoners, lots of arrogant European aristocrats found his populistic behavior entirely unacceptable.

Inset image: Childhood portrait of the oysterman King Ferdinand IV of Naples (also known as King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies). Oil painting by Mengs in 1760, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

As soon as Coste was commissioned to "fix the French oyster problem", he left for Lake Fusaro in Italy. Italian oystermen there were still cultivating oysters the same way their king had in his lifetime a few decades earlier. The cultivation method was complex, as beautiful Lake Fusaro is actually a mud pit below the surface - any oyster would sink into this muck and suffocate in no time. To offset this cultivation problem, King Ferdinand had hauled in tons of rocks and built up a number of rock pyramids for his oysters. Around these rock piles, wooden stakes were set. The British author James G. Bertram, in his marvelous book titled "Harvest of the Sea" (1865), tells of Coste's visit to Lake Fusaro. On page 350 he writes:

"The plan of the Fusaro oyster-breeders struck M. Coste as being eminently practical and suitable for imitation on the coasts of France: he had one of the stakes pulled up, and was gratified to find it covered with oysters of all ages and sizes. The lake Fusaro system of cultivation was therefore, at the instigation of Professor Coste, strongly recommended for imitation by the French Government to the French people, as being the most suitable to follow, and experiments were at once entered upon with view to prove whether it would be as practicable to cultivate oysters as easily among the agitated waves of the open sea as in the quiet waters of Fusaro." Inset image above: A portion of an engraving copied from page 350 of "Harvest of the Sea" by J. G. Bertram. Click image for full view.

Meanwhile, back in France, while Coste was still taking notes on oyster cultivation at Lake Fusaro in Italy, a remarkable man by the name of Monsieur de Bon was already successfully capturing European oyster babies on a wood plank system he had designed on his own. In 1853, de Bon, the Commissioner for Marine Affairs responsible for the area around St. Servan (near St. Malo in northern Brittany), had been instructed by a French minister to try to restock certain oyster beds which had been swept clean by over-harvesting. He brought in many European oysters from other areas and restocked some oyster beds. De Bon was well aware of the fact that this would only be a short term solution without new oyster babies being produced. At that point in time, it was commonly accepted that European oysters could successfully be transplanted. It was, however, not considered possible to also create an environment of reproduction with the promise of a commercially viable self-propagating cycle. De Bon took issue with that defeatist mode of thinking and proceeded to build all kinds of contraptions in the inter-tidal zone to grow oyster babies. He prevailed. His "plank system", essentially just a series of long wooden planks fastened to poles on the ends which were anchored in the tidal zone, produced oodles of young European oysters, which, upon attaining a reasonable size, were scraped off the planks onto the oyster beds for grow-out to marketable size.

Image: A pair of European oyster babies.

Coste returned from his fact finding mission and, in 1855, wrote an excellent report on his findings called "Voyage d’exploration sur le littoral de la France et de l’Italie" (a second edition of his report was issued in 1861). In 1857, during one of Coste's journeys along the French coast, he happened upon Mr. de Bon's amazing cultivation efforts. Coste was reportedly utterly amazed and highly excited. In 1858, Coste drafted a progress report for Napoleon III and simultaneously asked the emperor for 8,000 Francs to commence with experimental cultivation. The initial goal was the restoration of the famous, long since exploited oyster beds in the Bay of St. Brieuc (west of St. Malo in northern Brittany). Coste received the money he had asked for at once. He bought mature oysters in other areas and transplanted them into the Bay of St. Brieuc. The test area was covered with empty oyster shells and a number of ways to capture "oyster babies" were experimented with.

Image above: The renowned American naturalist and oyster specialist William K. Brooks took great interest in the work of Coste. On page 92 of his book "The Oyster" (1891) he furnished the above drawing of a bundle of twigs and branches, about ten or twelve feet long, bound together tightly in the middle with rope or wire, and then fastened to a conical stone below it. The bundle of brush ends up suspended in the water, about a foot off the bottom. Brooks recommended chestnut, oak, elm, birch, "or any other suitable wood". He noted that it was not unusual for one such bundle to yield several thousand young oysters. The French call these bundles of brush "Fascines". These "fascines" proved most versatile in Coste's days, as they would function well in areas, where muddy conditions existed. The distance off the bottom can also be easily adjusted to suit prevailing tidal circumstances.
Image below: A variant of the utilization of fascines was depicted in "Harvest of the Sea" by J. G. Bertram (page 351). Rather than using a stone of some sort as an anchor for the floating fascines, many fascines are instead suspended from lines attached to a row of poles (click image to enlarge).

In 1859, barely a year after getting started with his experiment in the bay of St. Brieuc, Coste brought the emperor news of overwhelming success already achieved in the cultivation process of oysters. He had proven that just one of his rather simple fascine devices could produce thousands upon thousands of young oysters which, in due time, would grow out to marketable size. Both Napoleon III and Coste were convinced that a solution had been found which could successfully be implemented in many more of the long exhausted oyster beds all along the French Atlantic coast and Mediterranean Sea. Funding for such an ambitious undertaking was certainly no issue at that point. Coste was now unstoppable in his zeal to transform the entire French oyster industry from the bottom up into an industry based on systematic oyster cultivation. Millions of mature oysters were purchased and replanted in a number of French coastal regions long devoid of oysters.

By the 1860s, the French oyster industry had already changed fundamentally. Many of the new cultivation areas proved to be highly productive, some others, however, ended up being dismal failures. Undaunted, the cultivation program was pushed forward. Coste and his associates became a significant part of an ever growing governmental army of hundreds of fishery officials, managing, monitoring, dividing and subdividing the oyster business in every corner of coastal France. Strict harvest regulations, very similar to those once enforced in France in the late 18th century, once again were introduced. Rules pertaining to harvest levels, seasonal restrictions, and the minimum size of oysters allowed to be taken were strictly enforced. Early on, it also became clear that the private sector needed to get involved and replace the often inefficient governmental efforts in the actual daily "hands on" of oyster cultivation.

Cultivation was also introduced in the sub-tidal zone. The sub-tidal zone was (and still is) the realm of the dredgers, who now were required to maintain their respective dredging areas. This included dispensing layers of empty shells periodically to serve as a necessary substrate for oyster larvae to attach themselves. This cultivation method is known as "shelling".

"Shelling" describes the practice of spreading prepared shell stock on oyster beds for the purpose of encouraging oyster larvae to settle on it. The prior preparation of the shells before spreading is very important and the method for this preparation rather simple. Discarded shells of shucked oysters are dumped in big piles somewhere on shore and are left to the elements. Sun, frost, wind, rain, birds, insects and other organisms virtually "bleach" the shells over time. The time it takes for nature to do its work in the preparation of the shells varies regionally. By virtue of touch, feel and smell, all oystermen know, when the shells are ready for shelling. The shell stock must not be spread on the oyster beds too early in the season. It should be spread not long before the oysters are expected to spawn. If the shell stock is spread too early in the year, it sits on the bottom too long. It will soon get covered with silt and "slime", at which point the oyster larvae will determine this offered "cultch" as undesirable for settling and move on (or die).

Inset image: A mound of oyster shells piled high in preparation for shelling purposes. Sea gulls are deeply convinced that these big piles of shells - as well as the rest of the universe incidentally - were created purely for them. As such, they frequently rejoyce in playing "King of the Hill".

Shelling is actually not a French, but rather an American oyster cultivation invention from the State of Connecticut. Its introduction predates any cultivation efforts by Coste or even de Bon by several years. Credited with the invention of shelling are Nathan Roberts and Oliver Weed of Norwalk (ref. V. M. Galpin; The New Haven Colony Historical Society; 1989; page 20), and Charles Hoyt, also of Norwalk, Connecticut (ref. James Richardson; Scribner's Monthly Vol XV; 1878; page 229). All three oystermen are reported to have engaged in the business of "planting" oysters in perviously exploited Connecticut oyster beds for the purpose of grow out as well as in shelling their oyster beds to induce settlement of oyster larvae. This occurred on or around 1850. Experiments started as early as 1847. Shelling is still of paramount importance both on the U.S. East and West Coast (Willapa Bay in particular).

Throughout the 1860s, Coste remained the driving force behind the revolutionized oyster industry of France. As mentioned earlier, the continued hands on cultivation of the vast governmental oyster beds soon proved to be highly expensive and very inefficient. Gaining the enthusiasm of the public sector in the area of oyster cultivation was of critical importance to make this new system work. Much like today, one sure-fire way to get lots of folks excited, was to offer an opportunity requiring little personal investment with the prospect of making lots of money. The French government thus divided up all the existing and potential oyster growing areas into parcels and started offering most attractively priced oyster concessions to the general public. Soon, some catchy "oyster success stories" started making the rounds in France, where ordinary folks were suddenly making "big bucks" (sounds better than "big Francs") with oysters.

These French success stories were also getting around in Great Britain by 1865, as evidenced by James G. Bertram's book titled "Harvest of the Sea". On page 352, Bertram begins to tell the story of "a stone-mason having the curious name of Beef. This shrewd fellow..." The shrewd fellow's name was not "Beef", but rather Monsieur Boeuf (which actually does translate to "Mr. Beef" or "Mr. Ox"). Monsieur Boeuf lived on the Isle of Re ("Ile de Ré"). Not only did he end up making a bunch of money with oysters, he also came up with an interesting new angle on cultivating oysters early on. Boeuf decided to built a little compound high up in the shallow portion of the inter-tidal zone, that part of public foreshore, which is left high and dry the longest during an ebb tide. He built a rock dike around this small area, about 18 inches high. Boeuf then pitched a bunch of European oysters into his little compound and surrounded them with small rocks he had dug up in the surrounding sand and mud. Much to his delight, baby oysters started growing on the rocks. Bertram goes on to tell of Monsieur Boeuf turning a nice profit selling the oysters (6 British Pounds on the first batch). All excited, Boeuf doubled the size of his compound. In 1861, Boeuf pulled in 20 British Pounds on his oyster sales. He increased the size of his compound again and, in 1862, Boeuf supposedly was already up to 40 British Pounds pure profit. Bertram goes on to note "and this without impoverishing, in the least degree, his breeding stock".

That's a pretty amazing story, particularly if one considers that, it usually takes a baby European oyster, in a very good nutritional environment mind you, about four years to reach marketable size. However, it really did not matter if this story had been embellished a tad or not. This was exactly the kind of story Coste and the French fishery needed to animate the public sector to get involved in oyster cultivation. It demonstrated the potential profitability and simultaneously encouraged ingenuity. By 1865, there were already approximately 4,000 of these compounds in operation on the Isle of Re.

Inset picture: Mud is a common companion for many oyster growers the world over. The oystermen and oysterwomen of Arcachon utilized special footwear to work more efficiently in the soft soils common in Arcachon Bay. An early 19th century postcard depicting a Arcachon oysterman can be viewed here (large image!). An Arcachon oysterwoman in traditional oystering garb can be viewed here. Another example of French ingenuity in late 19th century was the invention of coated roofing tiles to capture oyster babies. Details on this fascinating procedure still practiced today can be found under Captage

The horrors of the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871) temporarily put a damper on Coste's expansion efforts of French oyster cultivation. As noted, his most powerful and steadfast ally, Napoleon III, had vanished into exile. By then, the prolific and fast growing Portuguese oyster (Crassostrea angulata) had arrived in French coastal waters and was starting to establish itself as a most viable commercial alternative to the rather fickle and slow growing European oyster. In the decades to come, it would dwarf the French production volume of European oysters.

In 1873, after two decades of his truly herculean efforts to establish oyster cultivation in France, Victor Coste died. One might wonder how this great man felt about his accomplishments before he died. Robert Neild, author of a marvelous book called "The English, the French and the Oyster" (1995; Quiller Press) may have wondered as well. Neild dug up some remarkable quotes of the French zoologist M. Bocchi, who in 1881, after reviewing the principal French oyster cultivation areas, wrote a report for the French Minister of Marine.

"[...] It was not till after the publications and the experiments of M. Coste (1856-1858) that the attention of the inhabitants of our coasts was attracted to the possibility of rearing oysters artificially. These experiments, to which the State devoted considerable sums, produced great effect. M. Coste, with an enthusiasm perhaps somewhat exaggerated, but productive of definite and happy results, announced that a new source of wealth opened up to France.[...]"

Brocchi stated one year later about Coste:
"If he made some mistakes, he suffered cruelly for them. He died blind, disowned and, what is perhaps more terrible, doubting himself and his life's work. Nevertheless I am convinced that without him l'ostréiculture (oyster cultivation) would not exist, not only in France but also abroad."
Note: Robert Neild referenced the source of these quotes as "Brocchi, Traité d'Ostréiculture, Paris 1883.

After France had recovered from the war, governmental oyster concessions were selling like hot cakes. W.K. Brooks reported that by 1874, just in and around the famed oystering region of Arcachon, 2,434 governmental oyster cultivation concessions had been issued, covering some 6,625 acres.

On the oyster cultivation foundation Coste had laid, France soon built the biggest oyster empire in all of Europe. To this day, France remains one of the largest oyster producers in the world - by far the largest in Europe. Although a few countries in the world produce more oysters, no other country in the world today can begin to match its achieved level of sophistication in the area of oyster cultivation and refinement.

I will revise the opening of this report just a little bit and use it as the closing:

Coste is considered by some today as "the father of French oyster cultivation", although "the father of modern oyster cultivation" in the Western world is likely more appropriate.


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