Sunday, 6 July 2008

Miracle of the Morlaisen

The French
also had one miraculous slice of luck in this revival. Small numbers of the Portugese oyster (crassostrea angulata) had been transplanted successfully from the river Tagus, which had been known as a rich source of oysters and other fish from Roman times. Then in 1868 The Morlaisen, carrying Portugese oysters from Setubal bound for England hit a tempest off Arcachon and sought shelter off Bordeaux. The oysters started to smell and the captain Patoizeau ordered them to be dumped near Verdon at the very tip of the Pointe du Médoc. Far from being dead, the oysters took to the waters immediately and flourished. Within a few years the whole Gironde was once again thriving as an oyster centre.

There is some argument over the precise numbers but by 1910, where England was in serious decline the harvest was around 25 million oysters, compared to the revived French beds at 500 million.

Through the 20th century the French faced their share of crisis but with the almost military resources at their disposal the industry managed to stay buoyant.

Even after the abandonment of conscription and national service in 1983, they maintained the deeply Gallic and Napoleonic philosophy of only awarding concessions to new oyster beds on strict criteria which included how many children an applicant might have under 16; how many years in the navy or at sea and, more recently, demanding educational diplomas for which there is now a three year degree course.

Their ingenuity and decisiveness has been needed to combat new threats apart from overfishing.

As in England, the native oysters were badly hit by the Black Death of the 1920s and then more recently martellia in 1974 and bonomia in 1979 and 1984 and are now a fraction of what they used to be. The native round oyster has been decimated. Only five percent of the native flat oyster deposits remain.

The Portugese oyster was ravaged from 1949 by a terminal virus called simply Gill Disease or maladie des branchies and eventually the last link back to the Morlaisen’s cargo succumbed completely in the 1970s.

The French took a draconian and audacious decision to import the Japanese oyster (crassostrea gigas) directly from Japan and second generation cultures from British Columbia, in Canada. Now 98% of French oysters are what used to be called Pacifics. Even the Belon will not always be a flat round native oysters, though it may be, but the Pacific fattened in the Brittany waters.

The science though came from the new world.

French oysters - the vision of Victor Coste

The effects of overfishing were more immediate and earlier than in Britain, but where in England the crisis was met by helpless chaos, the French responded vigorously.

The oyster beds were regarded as a precious national asset. And their laws were different. Where the freedom of the individual that the barons had laid down in the Magna Carta had somehow managed to impose itself by association on the creeks and estuaries in England, the French had no such qualms. Francis 1 in 1544 and then Henri III in 1584 asserted the royal prerogative to own and farm the oyster beds in the national interest and had even dismantled private fishing which is why, in the Cancale example, it was the Admiralty that was called in to look at the state of the beds when the harvests started to decline. In the Gallic presumption, the state owned the bounty of the shorelines and would administer them as it saw fit. For the oyster that meant for the benefit of the people, just as Colne in Essex had also supposed.

In 1840 the navy also had to be called in to patrol the beds around Arcachon to protect the oysters from poachers, but it was already too late.

The French were spurred into collective action. The brilliant embryologist Victor Coste, or to give him his full name Jean Jaques Marie Cyprien Victor Coste had seen the cultivation techniques still being used in the Bay of Naples at Lago Fusaro from the Roman times. It had been revived 100 years before when King Ferdinand IV of Bourbon introduced a park for mussels and then oysters "that were gathered from the pots, reeds, faggots, palisades and from the bottom of the Lake”. That was 1764.

The enthusiastic Coste asked Napoleon III for 8,000 francs to restock the Bay of St Brieuc, west of St Malo. He would import oysters into the bay; pay for a boat to guard them, and then following the Italian example he would lay up stones, faggots and other collectors, so that when the oysters spawned, the young would have something on which to attach themselves; and the fishermen would also have something on which to attach their attentions. A year later in 1859, an elated Coste reported to Napoleon that the experiment had been a magnificent success. As evidence he quoted one single faggot carrying more than 20,000 spat. He recommended all French coastline and even the colonies of Corsica and Algeria follow his lead, except where the shoreline was too muddy. Napoleon, enterprisingly, acceded.

There was a second breakthrough at about the same time, this one credited to a stonemanson called M. Bouef at the Ile de Re, near La Rochelle. Not being a confidante of Napoleon, his first name, or names, has been lost but his contribution might be seen to have been as important. He noticed that in muddy waters, oysters would cling to stone sea walls. He reclaimed low tidal muddy flats by building small stone walls into small parks and laying the bottom with stones. This worked too. No longer dependent on the vagaries of the wild, the French realised they could bring in oysters from around Europe as spat and grow them on in their beds and specially created parks. Soon they were importing so much that they had depleted nearly all the seed stock from Spain: 20 million oysters harvested in 1860 became 350 million by 1907.

This approach was used for the nation’s most famous oyster, the Belon. Again it was Coste who had the vision. The Belon comes from the Aven-Belon river, although the name is not so historic as it likes to claim and is often misused. This is not a nursery or even a growing area, but the plankton rich waters are where oysters are taken to be finished before going to market, and will be at least three years old, some just get a quick bath and then back into the lorry, where others (speciales) are left for months.

Coste takes the credit for seeing that the richness of iron and the mix of sea and clear waters here would make Belon an ideal environment for oyster culture and persuaded one August Constant Solminihac to move his family from the Perigourd to plant the region in 1864, taking his first spat from Belgium. Later Coste was to revive the bays at Toulon and Brest with oysters imported from England. Solminihac, perceptively saw there was no need to be a grower at all when the oysters could be spawned and grown elsewhere, but could then be fattened up to effect and marketed from his river waters. His family still trade as Huitres du Chateau Belon. Four other companies now operate the concessions Thaëron, Cadoret, Noblet, and Thieblemont and seek to enforce strict labelling and control of the name by registering stocks and recording how long they have been kept in the Belon waters.

Coste’s bureaucracy however was intense. Inspections followed the Cancale model. Summer fishing was still banned. Concessions were awarded to naval conscripts. National service had been introduced as an alternative to press ganging, and an oyster concession became one of the pensions to the job. Often these were generous stipends with grants being awarded to retired sailors in terms of free spat, free stock, free tiles and other essentials for a would be oysterman. From Napoleon’s point of view it was a deliberate exercise in social engineering. He wanted oysters to feed the poor and he wanted profitable work for his former sailors.

In fairness Coste’s approach was not an immediate success, but it did revive both the Quiberon and the Arcachon, the latter only after decades of the strictest enforcement policies where in some years fishing was only allowed by hand for one hour a year which did not stop as many as 5,000 gatherers turning up for that single hour. But in the year of Coste’s death 1877, these beds suddenly revived dramatically. In 1880, 195 million oysters were taken. The number of concessions to ex-sailors rose from 483 to 4,239.