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.
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.
Quite a number of influential national
and many important regional "Comités"
and "Associations" also evolved in the second
half of the 20th century.
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.
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
A number of French national monitoring
networks also evolved in the later part of the 20th century and
still operate continuously: