Oysters.us - Spat Perceptions Introduction

20th Century France
John McCabe

France entered the 20th century as the largest producer of oysters in all of Europe. Although Spain had always produced a substantial quantity of oysters (and continues to do so to this day), its production was small compared to France. Holland had been quick to adopt some of the cultivation methods practiced by the French and maintained a small market share. Great Britain, historically a key player in the oyster game in Europe, was rapidly fading away due to over harvesting and no cultivation efforts. British fish mongers were already buying tons of Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) regularly from oystermen in the U.S. to satisfy market demand at home. The British supply of native European oyster was slim at best by the 1930s. Most of the oystermen in classic British oyster locales such as Colchester, Helford, Whitestable went out of business. The once significant German oyster industry in the Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer) had also failed due to over-harvesting. Some severe winter kills of the European oyster had added to the German oyster industry's failure.

By the 1950s, the French oyster industry had not only survived the ravages of two world wars, it had also pushed its oyster cultivation to a quality level unmatched anywhere in the world. It is rumored that an oyster grower in Normandy invented the "rack and bag" cultivation method for oysters right after W.W. 2. Word has it, that he placed abandoned military field bed frames as "racks" in the inter-tidal zone for bags of oysters. Today, the "rack and bag" method is the principal cultivation method in France. This tedious method of oyster cultivation leads to nicely shaped oysters, ideally suited for "slurping off the half shell". Additionally, the French perfected a process they call "Affinage" (refinement). Affinage describes an additional step in the oyster cultivation process, whereby a marketable oyster size is temporarily (for weeks or months) exposed to a special growing environment to further optimize its taste, meat weight, color and texture. This can be accomplished by transferring the oysters into so called "claires", square inland pools dug into the soil and connected to the sea by a network of channels. There, the oysters are tended to individually in specified low density - an "oyster resort" of sorts if you will. In a fairly short time period, oysters pampered in this manner acquire a special taste and texture. Although this form of refinement is practiced in a number of French growing areas, the most famous has always been Marennes-Oléron. Affinage can also be accomplished by placing the oysters temporarily into special river estuaries. The most famous "oyster river" in the world is the Belon River in southern Brittany. Although Pacific oysters are also grown there today, its claim to fame has always been the refinement of the European oyster near a dreamy little town called Riec-sur-Bélon.

Disaster struck the French oyster industry in the later part of the 1960s. In the course of a decade, multiple oyster diseases ravaged both the Portuguese oysters (gill diseases) and European oysters (Martellia refringens, Bonamia ostrea). In the first half of the 1970s, the French oyster industry was still devastated. The Portuguese oyster was almost extinct in French waters and the supply of European oysters was slim. However, the French oyster industry rebounded by the mid 1970s due to the successful introduction of the Pacific oyster, soon to emerge even stronger than ever before.

Between 1970 and 1973, after a number of careful studies, the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) was cautiously introduced into French waters. Thousands of tons of "cultch" (English name for shell stock or other suitable substrate) populated with baby Pacific oysters (called "spat" in English) were imported from Japan. The Japanese had already been supplying American and Canadian oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest with countless tons of this "spatted cultch" for many decades. Oystermen in Washington State had been importing spatted cultch since the 1920s and were by far the biggest Japanese customer. With the French, the Japanese had gained a huge new customer for the same oyster cultivating material. This led to supply bottle necks and price increases for the oystermen of the Pacific Northwest. In turn, scientists at the Washington State University, in conjunction with the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, greatly accelerated research and development in the area of large scale production of spatted cultch in marine laboratory environments. These formidable efforts soon met with great success. In less than a decade, oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest grew completely independent - and Japan lost its biggest "oyster baby customer" forever.

Along with the spatted cultch from Japan, France also imported hundreds of tons of mature Pacific oysters from British Columbia. These oysters were destined to become the brood stock in their warmer cultivation areas such as Marennes-Oléron and Arcachon. Before the release into French waters, both the imported spatted cultch, as well as the mature oysters were first immersed briefly into fresh water to kill any undesirable invasive species that may have "hitched a ride". Upon release, both the baby oysters and the mature oysters fared extremely well. Before long, the mature oysters were producing oyster babies by the billions - and Japan lost France as a big "oyster baby customer" forever.

For French oyster growers, the transition from cultivating the Portuguese oyster to cultivating the powerful new Pacific oyster was not difficult, as the Pacific oyster is almost identical to the Portuguese oyster. Some naturalists even claim that these two oyster species are actually the same. However, studies by a scientist of the renowned French marine research institute IFREMER proved a difference between the two species.

The second half of the 20th century also saw the thorough organization of French shellfish growers on both regional as well as a national level, many functioning in a governmentally sanctioned framework. By the 1990s, the entire fishery industry (including oysters and other shellfish) had been consolidated under the umbrella of a revamped French Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries (Ministère de l'Agriculture et de la Pêche). This department has a great number of responsibilities, including the enforcement of high sanitation standards, quality control, preservation of the natural integrity of cultivation environments, developing, protecting, and balancing the national agricultural/fishery production, and maintaining favorable agricultural/fishery living and employment standards.
Online: http://www.agriculture.gouv.fr

Quite a number of influential national and many important regional "Comités" and "Associations" also evolved in the second half of the 20th century.
Special note: Please note that I am not (yet) fully certain, how all these "Comités" and "Associations" function, which are more important than others or what influence (if any) they have on decision making on a governmental level. All I know is that they exist. It's still somewhat of a "bureaucratic mystery" to me and I hope to be able to sort it all out in a future update.

In 1991, an important national organization called CNC (Le Comité National de la Conchyliculture) was formed. Since the year 2000, it functions in some conjunction with the French Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries as a representative of the interests of shellfish growers as well as serving the public in a number of areas such as public relations, sanitation and food safety, education, industry reports, news and updates, statistics, and more.
Online: http://www.cnc-france.com

Several regional shellfish associations identify themselves sections of the "CIC" (Comité Interprofessionnel de la Conchyliculture). Examples are the Comité Interprofessionnel de la Conchyliculture, CIC Section régionnale d'Aquitaine or Section Régionale de Conchyliculture de Normandie. Every French shellfish grower, processor, and distributor appears to be part of this program.
Examples online:A page listing organizations and oyster growers in the Arcachon area can be found by clicking here.
An extensive page on a growers association in Normandy can be found here:

Formal two year training programs for shellfish growers were introduced at a number of so called Écoles de Conchyliculture. The basic format of the curriculum is similar to that of a trade schools in the United States and Canada or a "Berufsschule" or "Fachhochschule" in Germany and Austria. It covers everything from growing shellfish, food safety, biology, legislation, accounting, English, economics, seamanship, and many more areas that either directly or indirectly relate to the shellfish business. In conjunction with these educational programs, apprenticeships at shellfish growers are necessary. The two year course is called "Brevet d'Études Professionelles Maritimes de Conchyliculture".Only graduates are in a position to apply for a new shellfish concession from the French government.

In 1884, the French Institute IFREMER was formed. IFREMER stands for "Institut français de recherché pour l'exploitation de la mer", which means "Institute for research into the cultivation of the sea" (Note: the term "l'exploitation" in this context in French does not translate into the often negatively qualified English term "exploitation", but is rather commonly used in the context of French agriculture, such as the "improvement" or "cultivation of lands"). Since its inception, IFREMER has been the key scientific bridge between the French government (local and national), and the shellfish industry (and marine fishery as a whole). The institute is of critical importance in every French maricultural sector. It maintains research facilities or field offices in every maricultural region of France as well as in many international French protectorates. It keeps a constant eye on marine water quality and grades each area accordingly. IFREMER will also address and help solve cultivation challenges in the areas of shellfish disease, genetics, bio-fouling, pollution, new cultivation techniques, seafloor mapping, climatic studies on spawning of shellfish, pests and predators, and much more. IFREMER also maintains a small fleet of large and small research vessels in France and various other locations around the world.
Online: http://www.ifremer.fr

A number of French national monitoring networks also evolved in the later part of the 20th century and still operate continuously:
RNO: Le Réseau National d'Observation (RNO) monitors marine pollutant levels and qualifies their present and potential impact.
REMI: Le Réseau de Surveillance Microbiologique (REMI) evaluates the levels of micro-biological contamination - particularly in shellfish growing areas. Its findings contribute to the formal sanitary classifications of growing areas. They can also lead to immediate closures if deemed necessary.
REPHY: Le Réseau de Surveillance du phytoplankton et des phytotoxines (REPHY) watches for toxins in the plankton layer, particularly those which may be harmful in any way to the consumer. This network can also prompt an immediate closure of a growing area (or areas).

Although France continues to dominate the European oyster industry into the beginning of the 21st century, the second half of the 20th century saw the return of some important players in the "oyster game", particularly Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain, Holland, and Germany. Compared to France, their volume was (and is) relatively small, but the quality of the oysters is remarkably high. Although their cool waters dictate slow growth and there still is a greater or lesser dependency on French oyster seed and/or laboratory seed, the ultimate product of these oyster growers also has earned the respect of many European oyster lovers.

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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.

Advisements on any errors discovered are most welcome: Contact
© 2014 John W. McCabe