Jean-Noël Yvon, an oyster farmer belonging to the Natural Oysters Predisium, tells us about his 30-year relationship with nature.
Published January 2014 in l'Encre de mer
"An oyster develops over a period of three years and feeds itself on resources present in the water. In Ria d'Etel, an ancient and formerly glacial valley*, the tide retreats a long way back, and there is a continuing hydraulic network of fresh water; ranging from little streams to temporary or permanent irrigated canals. The fresh water provides the mineral salts needed for plankton to reproduce. There are many peninsulas, a sea maze contained in a small space, but also 140km of coastline. The currents of water alter depending on the tide and the land is extremely varied. Depending on the current (its strength and input of fresh water), some fencing is used develop oysters during the first year of their life, some are nurtured for a hardened shell and others for a more delicate meat; we work with the fencing, then on the rotation.
There are oysters which are elevated and some are on the ground, and sometimes there are empty pens to give the sea bed rest and so it can regenerate itself. It also provides an opportunity to clean it. The environment is rich in algae, moss, sponge: the desired biodiversity is there, but it is necessary to remove the algae as consuming oxygen from the water diminishes the plankton so they have to go in competition with the oysters.
Oysters, whose reproduction varies according to climate conditions, feeds on plankton. However even the plankton distributed in the sea bed can be displaced during extreme weather, namely during winter, storms and high tides... We don't exactly know everything our oysters are feeding on and for an oyster farmer there can be some surprises!
How do I explain in just two or three worlds what can only be learned from a 30-year career of living with this environment? If there is any change in factors, if hydrological conditions, rainfall, currents, and sunlight exposure are not the same, we need to adapt the technique to whatever conditions nature sends.
Oysters are like people: at every age, they vary in size and they have to be specially chosen as they don't reach maturity at the same time. The aim is not to work the same oyster generation too many times because otherwise we're touching them too often and putting them under too much stress. However we do look to have a group of the same point of maturity in order to reduce the work load at the end. It is necessary to change the surroundings while the oysters are growing, reducing the density, choosing the biggest nets to allow the water to circulate. Between the work carried out on the ground and within the fencing, by the time an oyster reaches maturity it has been handled at least 40 to 50 times! An oyster represents time and lots of labour, even if we have the habit of saying it's love!
I can also sense whether the oysters are growing well by ear: depending on the noise an oyster makes, I can tell if it has died... the shells sound hollow. When they have just been born, they are fragile and make a particular creaking sound. I can already tell this much by ear! By sight, a growing oyster is wonderful, it can grow from 1-2cm of length to the size of a cigarette packet, transparent, pearly and colored in purple and red on the hardest part of the shell. A healthy oyster has a magnificent spectrum of colors.
In 1994 we had some problems with the quality of the water. Instead of accusing the farmers, we chose to open discussions; in this way, thanks to the goodwill of each person and actions take, we found the highest quality of water in the area without coercive measures and legal action. These meetings have united many players in the region and brought about an impassioned exchange of ideas which led to a fair division of responsibilities.
It's a story about territory: a system which allows all the professionals living on the coast to continue to work and live. Our choice was that of a costal agriculture, at the expense of the development of tourism. Without the contribution of agriculture, without the input of labour, there are no mineral salts in the sea, and therefore no plankton and no biodiversity. It is essential to preserve this biodiversity with all our ability, safeguarding the majority of activity which makes for a good equilibrium.
For some years, we have seen a proliferation of Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful plankton which has developped on all the French coast after Cyclone Cynthia. The water rose a radius of 10km inland, and flowed back to the sea with not insignificant problems. It has caused a large unbalance: as soon as there is unbalance on land, there is unbalance in the sea.
To guarantee a continuing availability of the product, a group of researchers have manipulated the DNA of oysters by adding a chromosome and changing the natural oysters (diploid) into the socalled triploid (infertile). Changed in this way, the triploid oysters consecrate most of their energy to feeding themselves and getting fatter. They can then be traded from 18 months, rather than after three years. After a few years, this method brings about general overproduction in all the waters, with an overdensity in every phase of maturation. Nature responds in its own way: in the years of overproduction, a virus attacked the oysters.
Oyster farming is making the same mistakes agriculture made 25 years earlier. When we started to discuss these ethical problems regarding younger oysters, farming colleagues opened their eyes wide with surprise: "But Jean-Noel! After all this time when we've explained all the mistakes we've made with poultry, pigs and cows, you've had to learn your lesson on your own!" The fact is that the profession has lost its common sense: a natural environment provides nutrition that can't sustain more than a certain number of individuals.
If a farmer puts 40 cows in a field, he will produce milk. If he puts 80 in there, he will have more milk, but much less from each cow. In oyster farming, we have no idea of the nourishment available. To allow uncontrolled development forces us to run risks.
After all, we now find ourselves with 6 or 7 farms, instead of the 1000 or 1200 small businesses that were producing oysters naturally. They represent a fundamental presence for controlling the water quality and a guarantee for the area, landscapes and biodiversity. In many cases, if small mollusk farming businesses are driven out, you will see tourism, the risk of overbuilding and widespread water pollution develop. It should be added to the Ifremer (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea) licences for the triploids which will be in the public domain in 2014 that there is a large risk of interference from big private groups, and that the risks relating to reduction of genetic information regarding triploid reproduction are real, and fall into the same category as sterilization of the natural environment.
The problem goes much father than oyster farming. In the end, the consumer has no information about these triploids seeing as it is not necessary to declare them, and groups of natural and triploid oysters can be mixed together. We are therefore a Slow Food Presidium in order to raise awareness among consumers about the traditon of "oysters born in the sea" and together we have signed a Charter of Quality with Cohérence network in Brittany, which certifies our activities as respectful to the environment.
We must count on nature and not on the selection of farms, so that for future generations we preserve biodiversity and a genetic richness which will allow oysters to adapt and survive."
*Ria, in the department of Morbihan, Aber (Celtic word meaning esturary) in the department of Finistère, is named after fjords in Norway.