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Director's Corner - August 2012

by Dr. Michael Rubino


August 2012

Oistre.  The Norman-French word became oyster in English and ‘huitre’ in French. Ostréiculture.  “Oyster farming.”

Earlier this summer, Gary Wikfors of NOAA’s Milford, CT lab and I had the opportunity to visit sixth-generation shellfish enterprises (or, ‘conchylicoles’), shellfish start-up companies, a wholesaler of moules (mussels), and leading French chercheurs (researchers) in Brest and along the south coast of Bretagne on a mission to further bind the aquaculture relationship between the two countries.  In addition to reminding me of the diversity and vibrancy of French aquaculture, I saw how similar the challenges and opportunities in France are to those in the United States.

Like our languages, the histories of France and the United States have been intertwined for over 200 years since Admiral de Grasse’s fleet helped to defeat the British at Yorktown.  U.S.-French collaboration is alive and well in the field of aquaculture – especially shellfish culture – thanks to Gary and his colleagues at the Milford Lab. The Milford lab is the birthplace of many modern shellfish culture techniques. Gary has been working with French scientists for almost 20 years on everything from microalgal culture to larval nutrition to shellfish immunology.  French interns, doctoral students, and post-docs have spent months to years in Milford.  As is the case for many American shellfish hatchery technicians, counterparts from France have taken Gary’s algal course at Milford.  French ostreculteurs also use Milford algal strains for both research and hatchery production. 

A few weeks ago, Gary introduced me to the French side of the collaboration in the form of a week’s tour of oyster, mussel, abalone, and fish culture operations and government and university research labs in Brittany.  Our hosts were Hélène Hégaret, based at the Universite de Bretagne Occidentale in the city of Brest, and René Robert, director of the Argenton shellfish research lab of IFREMER, the French government research institute for the exploration of the sea (equivalent to the research side of NOAA).   As a graduate student, Hélène spent nearly five years at the Milford Lab. 

Oyster and mussel operations dot the banks of tidal rivers and bays in Brittany.  This Celtic coast looks a bit like New England and Maine with rocky coasts, numerous tidal rivers and bays, and small beaches.  The tides come in and out at walking to horse gallop pace.  Oysters are typically grown in plastic mesh bags arrayed on metal racks, referred to as “tables.”  Bottom culture and suspended bags are also used.

The European flat oyster, Ostrea edulis, has largely been replaced by the culture of the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas (also cultivated on the U.S. west coast).  But C. gigas in recent years has been affected by a pathogenic virus that is contributing to the death of up to 80 percent of young oysters in France.  Growers are buying additional seed to compensate and keep up production levels.  Mussels, the other major shellfish crop, are grown on lines wrapped around wooden posts, on suspended lines, or on the bottom.

As in the U.S., shellfish farming is dominated by small- to medium-sized operations.  While French farmers supply most of France’s oyster needs, the country imports mussels from all over Europe to feed a growing popularity of “moules frites” at coastal restaurants.  

“Manger les moules pour sauver les frites” (“Eat mussels to save French fries”) is the slogan on delivery trucks of one of the major mussel wholesalers in Brittany. 

Also like in the U.S., people want to eat oysters, mussels, and fish, but they do not want them grown in their “backyards” overlooking million euro views.  Many a modest, quaint coastal stone house of a former oyster farming family is now a vacation home. Some oyster farmers we met complained about the myriad of overlapping regulations, the replacement of working waterfronts by sailboat marinas, and the financial risks of oyster diseases.  No wonder that some are selling businesses or retiring. 

Despite the challenges, we also met young entrepreneurs who’ve started new oyster, mussel, abalone, and sea urchin operations and an oyster hatchery.  KYS Marine (a play on an English word) is working around disease issues and seasonal demands by starting oysters in the Mediterranean, moving them to Normandy for part of their grow-out, and finishing them in Brittany (in suspended cages to tumble oysters to achieve the deep cup that some Rhode Island and other U.S. growers also get by tumbling).  They are building their own hatchery with technical advice from René Robert (IFREMER), target restaurants “de haute gamme,” and are expanding into mussel farming (on suspended ropes a la New Zealand).  Novostrea Bretagne, a recent startup oyster hatchery (ecloserie), was started by a group that previously worked at a sea bass hatchery in France.

Another young company, founded by Sylvain Huchette, is raising abalone destined for four- and five-star rated restaurants around Europe. Abalone are spawned and reared in an on-land hatchery with nursery tanks and then stocked in cages in the sea for grow-out.  Wild-harvested seaweed is fed to the abalone.  This company also is testing sea urchin culture.  Most of these young companies were financed by the entrepreneurs themselves with help from friends and family.  Only one received a bank loan—again similar to the US, where commercial banks are not familiar with aquaculture’s risks. 

We concluded the tour with a stop the reputed original home of the Belon oyster (the popular name for the European flat oyster).  “Belon” (with the accent on the first syllable) is now an appellation controle, like French wine sub-regions.  Along the banks of the Belon estuary, the de Solminihac family has been cultivating oysters since the 1860s.

The week included a morning workshop at IFREMER’s La Trinite field station on advances in larval nutrition, disease diagnostics, algal toxins, harmful algal bloom and parasite interactions, effects of microplastics on marine life, nutrient mitigation using shellfish culture, and biosecurity and management measures to deal with oyster disease.  Drafts of co-authored research papers were reviewed and polished. 

One objective of this trip was to maintain current cooperative activities and build the next generation of Franco-American scientific exchanges on shellfish aquaculture.  Shared challenges and opportunities on the commercial side, and technologies and scientific expertise on the research side, that form the basis of this collaboration were affirmed.  We concluded that a formal agreement articulating the intention and scope of NOAA Fisheries collaboration on shellfish aquaculture with France would be preferable to current informal, ad hoc arrangements being used currently.  Being part of an established program reduces the burden of justifying exchanges of people and information between institutions in both nations.