Oysters.us - Spat Perceptions Introduction

18th and 19th Century France
John McCabe

Up to the 18th century, the French didn't have any oyster regulations to speak of. In the early 1700s, they started to suffer from oyster shortages in various areas. In 1759, a law was passed for all of France forbidding the harvesting and selling of oysters for six months out of the year - from the end of April through the end of October (the precursor to the famous "R-Months"). In 1766, the renowned French oyster village Cancale was particularly hard hit by shortages. Cancale was a most preferred oyster supplier to the French Royal Court. Hence, when Cancale could no longer adequately supply the royal Versailles with delicious oysters, it quickly had everybody's attention.

The French Admiralty ordered a study of the problem immediately, resulting in much tougher oyster laws. The "Cancalaise" were now only permitted to harvest specific tracts on a rotating yearly basis. Enforcement of the rules was poor which soon resulted in further shortages. An official "oyster inspector" was ultimately appointed to keep a closer eye on the oystermen. By 1787, the regulations were once again updated. This time, four officials called "gardes jurés" were chosen yearly by the oystermen themselves out of their midst which in turn reported to the "oyster inspector" of the French Admiralty. Although these four officials had no real policing authority, they certainly had clout and could make "things happen" indirectly. They decided what areas were open for oyster harvesting and when they could be harvested. The author Robert Neild, in his marvelous book titled "The English, the French and the Oyster", describes this elaborate system of checks and balances in detail. Briefly, the regulation contained these elements:

The oyster season was closed between April 1 and October 15. In September of each year, the new "gardes jurés" would get together with their predecessors from the year before and take samples at all the tracts. During the first Sunday in October, all the oystermen, the gardes jurés and the oyster inspector would then meet and be briefed by the gardes jurés on the condition of the various tracts. A majority vote would then designate which tracts would be opened for the upcoming season (starting Oct. 15). Oystermen from outside of Cancale could also partake in the harvesting, however, only by permission of the Admiralty, which in turn would stipulate harvest quotas. During the course of the season, the four gardes jurés would decide on what days harvesting would take place. At such a time, all the oyster boats would depart together, led by the boats of the gardes jurés. This spectacular sight of all the sailing boats taking to sea together became well known later as the famous "Caravane". It was celebrated every year clear into the 20th century. After the harvest, the catch had to be sorted by hand - right on the spot. No oysters were allowed to be transplanted elsewhere. All under-sized oysters had to be returned to their original habitat. One of the four gardes jurés later inspected each oysterman's catch.

This new system also featured some stiff penalties. Any oystermen caught taking oysters during off-times not only lost their boat and dredge, but were also fined to boot. Anybody caught harvesting on tracts not authorized by the gardes jurés was fined heavily. Authorized tracts showing poor harvest levels in the course of a particular season would be closed. The system worked for many decades and similar regulations stayed in place well into the 19th century.

After the Napoleonic Wars, French over-harvesting gradually started to resume again. The enforcement of oyster regulations had lost much of its bite and excessive dredging for oysters was soon worse than ever before. Between the years 1836 and 1847, the oystermen of Cancale were hauling up about 50 to 70 million European oysters per year. By 1856, less than a decade later, the average production per year had dropped to 18 million. The harvest continued to rapidly dwindle, finally bottoming out at approximately 1 - 2 million oysters per year in the early 1860s.

The French economy was founded on mercantilism. Government regulation thus permeated all private sectors. For many decades, exploiting business with excessive taxation was the rule. By the 1850s, however, balancing business growth by supporting and protecting the mercantile class and natural resources began to replace their prior blatant extortion. This ultimately affected the French oyster industry very positively. In 1852, a law was passed which subjected the oyster fishery in virtually all of the French coastal areas to licensing of the oyster beds by the government. Oystermen were thus obligated to pay a fee in order to be granted concessions. Hence, the success of any oystering operation was dependent on the ability to secure or renew valuable concessions with the blessing of the government.

Although, in theory, this opened the doors of opportunity for any and all oystering operations, particularly for many small French family businesses, there were, initially at least, hardly any oysters left on these concessions. Countless oystermen up and down the French coast had already gone out of business. This economic condition would ultimately change for the better with the development of large governmental oyster cultivation parks by the late 50s and early 60s.

In the late 1850s, France started cultivating oysters aggressively. Financed by Emperor Napoleon III, a prominent French naturalist by the name of Victor Coste started setting up cultivation sites all along the coast of France for purposes of controlled catching of oyster larvae and the subsequent raising of "oyster babies". The French call "oyster babies" large and small "naissains", while we refer to very tiny oysters as "spat", and, after they attain about the size of a finger nail, "seed". Coste's efforts ultimately revolutionized the oyster industry. At first, the government took over a number of vast oyster beds which had already been depleted and started cultivating them with Coste's methods.

The government farms, however, did not prove to be efficient or profitable, so the management of these oyster grounds was moved largely to the private sector by way of governmental oystering concessions. Cultivation managed to rekindle the failed French oyster industry rapidly. By the 1870s, governmental oyster concessions were selling like hot cakes.

Lastly, and quite by accident, a new oyster species, the Portuguese oyster (Crassostrea angulata) was introduced along the Atlantic coast of France. In 1868, a freighter by the name of Le Morlaisien ended up getting caught in a mighty storm on the Atlantic near the estuary of the river Gironde. Its cargo consisted of about 600,000 live Portuguese oysters destined for markets in England. Trapped by the storm, the ship had to seek refuge closer to shore for a few days. By then, the highly perishable cargo of fresh oysters already seemed spoiled. The captain and crew of the ship, by now likely suffering greatly from the stench of decaying oysters, pleaded with an official in Bordeaux for permission to dump the load of dead oysters overboard. Permission was granted. Just a few years later, much to the surprise and initial dismay of local French oystermen, an abundance of these Portuguese oysters started turning up in famous oyster beds like Marennes-Oléron. Some of the oysters originally thought dead, obviously had not been. It's also likely that the shells of the discarded dead oysters were already populated with lots of tiny oyster babies. Favorable ocean currents subsequently distributed this new species rapidly.

At first, French oystermen were greatly concerned that the Portuguese oysters would encroach upon and lastly drive out what was left of their precious European oyster stocks. Instead, the highly prolific Portuguese oyster proved to be far more suitable for cultivation than the European oyster and soon became the mainstay of the French oyster industry. By the end of the second half of the 19th century, while England's oyster industry, void of any cultivation efforts, had already failed, France had become the undisputed oyster paradise in all of Europe.

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Health advisory: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.

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© 2014 John W. McCabe