Restrictions on gathering and on travelling during the pandemic generated new ways for people to work. Webinars instead of face-to-face conferences, and meetings on Zoom or Teams instead of in person. Some of these changes have persisted even after restrictions have been rolled back. Some oyster famers have noticed that business lunches are less common and online events are still popular.
In Cancale, an area across the bay from Mont St-Michel, oysters are cultivated in two ways, says Stephan Alleaume, an oyster farmer. The Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, grows in net bags placed on tables, while further out to sea, the European flat oyster, Ostrea edulis, is cultivated on the sea bed. Oyster spat, however, comes not from the area, but either from south of the river Loire or from hatcheries. The oyster farming area comprises different zones radiating seawards from the coast. The zone closest to the shore holds the mussels from the beds or from the tables on their way to the processing facility. The movement of the tides permits access to the tables or to the beds only one week in two. During that week we harvest as much as possible, Mr Alleaume explains, and more than we can store in the facility. The excess we store here until we need them. The oysters rejected in the facility that must go back to the sea to grow some more also spend some days in this zone until the tides allow their return to the tables or the sea bed. The area functions like a staging post for oysters on their way to the factory or back to the water.
Spatial expansion no longer possible
Some 30-40 companies produce oysters in the bay. Other species cultivated include bouchot mussels and, in some area, grooved carpet shell clams, taking the number of species farmed to four. The activity is intense and as a result space to expand production is no longer available, says Mr Alleaume. In addition, the feed in the bay must supply both the cultivated and the naturally occurring stocks of shellfish, so this also constrains expansion. The farmers can keep track of the phytoplankton by satellite so that they know its volume and the direction of travel. The phytoplankton circulates around the bay allowing the different shellfish species to feed. They feed on different varieties of phytoplankton so there is no competition between oysters and mussels, for example. The oyster beds’ location in the bay protects them from most storms, but strong northeast winds can damage them.
Total production in the bay amounts to 10,000 tonnes of mussels, 5,000 tonnes of Pacific oysters and 1,000 tonnes of flat oysters. Mr Alleaume’s contribution is 700-800 tonnes of oysters. Pacific oysters dominate his production too—they have been cultivated for many years in contrast to the flat oysters, a new activity that started only five years ago. The first harvest of the flat oysters was in fact only last year. At this site Mr Alleaume plans to reach a production of 700 tonnes of Pacific and 100 tonnes of flat oysters, however he also owns beds in Normandy and two farms in Ireland, in the north and the south. Flat oysters usually take 3-4 years, sometimes 5 to reach market size, while Pacific oysters require 3 years occasionally 4. Global warming does not favour growth as the oysters use the winter period to rest and if the winters are shorter and warmer they will get less rest. Growth concentrates in spring and autumn, while spawning occurs in the summer. Creating the reproductive material calls for energy and in winter if the oysters fail to get the rest they need it affects the growth the following year.
Pre-covid levels of consumption have not yet returned
Mr Alleaume harvests all the year round to supply his markets. Before covid he exported to some 70 countries which accounted for 90-95% of his sales by volume. The situation has not returned to its pre-covid status as some countries still restricted movement in 2022. Covid influenced sales within France as the French vacationed within the country creating more demand for oysters. As countries relaxed restrictions some of the practices introduced by covid remained in place. Online meetings, for example, working from home, and fewer business lunches all tend to reduce the consumption of oysters, which are closely linked to conviviality. And someone who knows how to open them must also be among the guests at a private party. Mr Alleaume experienced a particular slump when the restaurant and hotel sector closed down. Even if people wanted to eat oysters they could not because they could not open them. He notices also changes in the demographic profile of those that are eating oysters today. The generation of people in their 40s and 50s lacks curiosity, he says. If oysters did not form part of their childhood many will not eat them today. Younger people, however, show more spirit. They will try something new without much hesitation. Raw food resonates with them, and oysters hold a special appeal as they are they only food in French gastronomy eaten alive.
Christmas heralds a very busy period when the company makes some 20% of its turnover. However, for smaller producers the season may account for 80% of their turnover. To meet the demand Mr Alleaume has two teams grading the oysters in the weeks up to Christmas, so that as it draws nearer the workforce can concentrate on packaging. To meet the spike in demand the number of staff increases from 27 to 70 people and when demand peaks the team can shift 25-30 tonnes of oysters in a day. Because finding labour becomes more and more difficult—even to fill permanent positions—Mr Alleaume entices the temporary staff hired over Christmas with high wages. These will often return year after year knowing they can work for two weeks and earn a months wages. The arrangement suits Mr Alleaume too as people employed by him once are trained and are far more efficient than newbies.
Shell can be recycled into different products
In some countries, such as the US and Australia, the length of the shell determines the grade of the oyster, but In France as in most of Europe the weight defines the grade. Grades go from 0 to 5 with 5 the smallest. Grade 5 oysters go back to the sea to continue growing. Flat oyster grades go from 00000, 0000, 000 and so on to 5. Another dimension used to categorise oysters is the proportion of meat in relation to the shell. If under 8% the oyster is regular, from 9 to 10.5% is fin and over 10.5% is special. Meat content can even reach 20%, says Mr Alleaume, if the oysters grow in areas where there is an abundance of food. Even a high content of meat cannot disguise the large volume of shell that remains. Converting this into a resource would add another income stream to the business. Mr Alleaume collaborates therefore with several companies to try and recycle the shell into chicken feed, scrubbing soap, sunglasses, and crockery. Poultry farms cannot be found in his area though, so the shell must be transported elsewhere which adds to the costs particularly as it is heavy.
Mr Alleaume rents his farm site from the government, which lays down the rules governing its use. Inspectors from the marine department monitor the activities at the site and check that the farmers do not exceed the permitted number of oyster bags per hectare. Mr Alleaume knows that increasing the density will reduce the yield, but some other farmers feel differently. Those who value quality struggle with those who believe in volumes, he says. An accredited laboratory monitors water quality and the costs of this service are covered partly by the government and partly by the farmers’ association. The association takes a fee from the farmers proportionate to the size of the farm. The fee goes towards surveys, research, new ways of growing, and also for handling the contact with government authorities. The association plays an important role but building or rebuilding markets is a task for the farmer.