Oysters are the architects of the marine ecosystems. The nooks of their shells and hard surfaces provide homes for a number of smaller marine species. As oyster populations battle to survive in polluted waters, the mollusks are a useful indicator of environmental conditions along the coast, and, as filter feeders, help to clean the waters around them.
Oysters are a perfect expression of their terroir, like wine, acquiring complex flavors distinctive to the area. Environmental factors such as salt level, water temperature, seabed composition, tide range and current strength will all contribute to their unique flavor.
Oysters have been cultivated since the earliest civilizations, the technique practiced by the Chinese, Greeks and Romans. Seed oysters are placed in water, often out to sea and then transferred to a fattening bed after reaching a certain size before being collected. In France, the first systems for capturing and sea farming naissain (babies, or spat) developed in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, around the 19th century. Today the oyster spat is captured in the Arcachon Basin, in the Gironde, where conditions are particularly favorable to growth, then implanted in Brittany. The natural cycle of the oyster determines it seasonality: It is not advisable to eat them in the summer, when they reproduce, because hormonal changes slow their growth, making them small, mushy and milky.
To respond to public demand and guarantee more year-round availability oysters, researchers have created genetically altered varieties, adding a chromosome to transforming natural oysters (diploids) into sterile triploids. These triploid oysters spend most of their energy on feeding and fattening themselves up so they can be harvested from the age of 18 months, rather than three years. As they do not reproduce, triploids are unaffected by the hormonal changes during the reproductive season which alter the texture of the oysters, therefore and are always the same and can be harvested year-round and without compromising on the criteria demanded by the public: fleshiness, uniformity and roundness. For this reason, triploids are sometimes called the "four season oyster."
The French oyster industry has recently been experiencing a serious crisis because of a viral epidemic wiping out the larvae in indiscriminate geographic areas. Many oyster farmers are facing ruin and will be forced to close their businesses. The guilty virus is harmless to humans but proliferates in environments suited to the growth of algae, on which oysters feed. Probably because of a mutation, the virus has now become more aggressive.
This new strain of virus, the impoverishment of the marine ecosystem, weaker specimens because of intensive farming, the loss of the oysters' genetic heritage and the genetic alterations carried out by scientists are the reasons given for the spread of the virus, though in reality no one knows the exact causes.
Small-scale oyster farmers are suffering the most from competition from triploids and the viral epidemic attacking the mollusks. This is why the Presidium producers, together with the oyster farmers from the Cohérence association's Ostréïculture Durable et Solidaire network, have decided to stick with tradition and respect the oysters' natural reproductive cycles.
The Presidium guarantees sea-born oysters and environmentally friendly farming conditions, governed by a production protocol signed by all the producers, with participatory certification. Among other conditions, the protocol states that no more than 4,000 oysters can be raised per hectare and that all the spat must be caught at sea.
In collaboration with the Cohérence association, the Presidium also intends to inform and mobilize eco-gastronomes who care about the future of oyster farming so that they support these artisans. To the general public, it can be hard to distinguish triploid oysters (which are more uniform in taste) from diploids. As we wait for compulsory labeling, it is necessary to raise awareness among consumers, informing them about the natural seasonality of oysters.
This united front of oyster farmers, fighting to protect the biodiversity of the marine ecosystem offers the only hope for preserving the authentic flavors of Breton's many oyster terroirs.
tel. +33 663080450
tel. +33 297849818
The three Presidium producers are joined together in the Groupement des Producteurs d'Huîtres Bretonnes Nées en Mer - Réseau Cohérence.
tel. + 33 6 34316443
Presidium supported by:
Brittany Regional Authority