Croatian flat oyster hatchery planned

Two Croatian entrepreneurs, in coordination with the University of Dubrovnik, are planning to open that county’s first hatchery for European flat oysters.

European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) are considered a delicacy, with a distinctive, slightly metallic taste. But they are rare, primarily due to their susceptibility to disease – particularly, infections from the parasite Bonamia ostrea, which affects the oysters’ digestion and causes them to die within two years, before reaching their full size. 

As a result, they have been largely replaced in Europe with the cupped or Pacific oyster, Crassoteria gigas. Due to the robust nature and ease of cultivation the Pacific oyster, these now account for more than 75 percent of Europe’s oyster production.

But flat oysters remain locally famous in Croatia at the tourist spot of Mali Ston.  There is a long tradition of cultivating oysters here going back to Roman times. Mali Ston is a village in Croatia on the Pelješac Peninsula, and home to the Walls of Ston, the largest wall after the Great Wall of China. Many tourist visit the town, and the oysters are the local specialty.

Croatia currently doesn’t have any documented cases of Bonamia or other diseases that trouble the rest of the world when it comes to producing oysters. However, production is low. Croatia produces only about 1000 metric tons (MT) per year, and almost all goes to local restaurants for tourists in the summer. Exports to Italy, Spain, and France amount to only a few tons.

The method of production used in Mali Ston is unique: Oyster farmers catch the larvae on tree branches and culture them in nets, then move to them to suspended lines. The partners engaged in the new entrepreneurial venture, Ivan Zovko and Dominik Mihaljević, a doctorate student in aquaculture, plan to build and operate add a hatchery to improve upon this process.

“[We] cannot produce enough, though with Croatia’s large coastline there is a lot of room for boosting production. The biggest problem is that we still collect spat from the wild, so we are limited how much we can produce,” Zovko told SeafoodSource. “There was not much funding in aquaculture in the last few decades after the war in Croatia – former Yugoslavia – and there was never a strong enough initiative to develop the necessary technology to open a commercial hatchery for flat European oysters.”

The project is coming together now thanks in part to European Union project funding. Croatia joined the E.U. in 2014, prior to which it had no experience in dealing with outside funding. The E.U. gave the country funds for economic development projects in numerous sectors including transportation and agriculture. Croatia had six years to allocated the funds, but the process was at first not transparent, and there was certain amount of corruption, Zovko said.

“We did not know who [could] get [funding], on what conditions… And there was the depression. But now, it is finally getting organized,” he said.

The university applied to be funded through E.U. grants. It will establish a hatchery at Mali Ston to develop the technology, and then the technology will be transferred to the partners’ business. Later, they might take over the hatchery or establish a new one nearby. The university already has a research site in the bay with some apartments and a field laboratory.

Though they are open to investors, the partners have secured a commitment from a bank to back their share of the project. They will get a loan at less than one percent interest through a stimulus program of the central bank. 

“Due to limited supply of oyster from the wild, export was never an option for the local oyster farmers. With the hatchery we can increase the production five times in as little as three to four years. Our goal is to market the product to restaurants and bars until we establish ourself as a premiere oyster producer on the Japanese and world markets,” Zovko said.

They are looking for contacts to see if there is interest among buyers. Zovko said he hopes to transport oysters to Japan and sell them for a slightly higher price than the Pacific oysters – enough to cover the extra transportation costs. They are working with a transportation company now to explore and develop the most economical method for transporting their oysters to Japan.


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