How the oyster herpes virus has been good for business

Giving credence to the old adage that every cloud has a silver lining, leading Channel Islands shellfish producer The Jersey Oyster Company has managed to ramp up its output and grow its business despite the arrival of the Oyster Herpesvirus type 1 (OsHV-1) in Jersey’s waters five years ago. In truth, the disease has been the main contributing factor toward the company’s recent successes.

Last year, Jersey Oyster produced 700 metric tons (MT) of Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas), up from 600 MT in 2012, and 100 MT of French-style bushel mussels. At the same time, its sister company Rocquaine Shellfish on the neighboring island of Guernsey produces about 30 MT of Pacifics, while its joint-venture La Rocque Fisheries grows half-size oysters for French producers.

To give the company’s output some context, in total the United Kingdom is producing less than 1,200 MT of oysters per year, including a modest native oyster (Ostrea edulis) production of less than 120 MT.

As far as Jersey is concerned, OsHV-1 became a major problem in 2009, at which time Jersey Oyster began devising strategies to help the company better manage the problem, said John Vautier, company director. A year later, mortality levels were initially reduced by moving the start of its production cycle to later in the year and then improved further by increasing the stocking densities in the oyster bags. 

However, Vautier stresses that it wasn’t as simple as switching from one system to another and that there's been considerable experimentation along the way.

“Once the virus is in the environment, it is there for good. It’s about learning to live with it and implementing best practice and good biosecurity where possible. We’re now four years down the line and we are continuing to fine-tune things to get the best results,” he said.

“The challenge with this industry is that it’s constantly changing so we need to as well. Just this week, we heard there had been 60 to 80 percent mortality (at a site) in Normandy, France, which is just 15 miles from us. Fortunately, it’s in natural spat rather than hatchery seed.”

Historically, one of the trade-offs for having the fast, nutrient-rich waters that make it possible for the Channel Islands to grow an oyster from seed to market size in just 18 months is that the local industry has always been reliant on buying hatchery seed as the currents wash away any natural spat. However, a major plus point is that the virus has not impacted hatchery seed thus far.

The dependency on hatcheries is perhaps the most significant difference between oyster farming on Jersey and traditional production on the French or U.K. mainland.

“It made it easier for us to change our production cycle than it would be for French producers, for example, who are tied into saving their spat each year. For them to make the shift to buying in hatchery seed is an extra step that they don’t want to take at the moment,” said Vautier.

Jersey Oyster has always had a very strong connection with the French market and exports about 80 percent of its total production to the country. In recent years demand has increased as a direct result of France’s own output falling to below 80,000 MT from its pre-virus heights of 130,000 MT. Most of the company’s remaining production goes to the United Kingdom, although it has supplied to Dubai and Hong Kong in the past. In addition, Vautier revealed the level of enquiries from the Far East is growing and that the company is currently “feeling its way into that market” because it believes there is a lot of potential there.

Because of the change in Jersey Oyster’s production cycle, it has also shifted its market focus toward the end-of-year trade, in particular the French Christmas market. Prices have also been affected — prior to the virus outbreak, the wholesale price of oysters in France was EUR 2 (USD 2.71) per kg, in May last year they were double that at EUR 4 (USD 5.41) per kg, said Vautier.

“Certainly, the French market is very important to us so what has been happening over there with the herpes virus has had a major impact. But there is also increasing interest in oysters and other shellfish, and from the U.K. market in particular, so we believe there is more growth potential.”

Vautier further believes that while there have been “significant downsides to the virus” the market is a lot healthier today than before the outbreak when there were too many businesses producing too many oysters.

Looking ahead, the company has long held an ambition to get closer to the retail market. To this end, it has invested in a 15,000 square-foot processing facility as well as staff training and the lengthy and costly process of getting all the correct procedures and protocols in place.

In being exposed to the virus, Jersey Oyster's costs have increased but so too have its revenues. The bottom line for the company has been increased profitability, confirmed Vautier.

“It’s an unreliable business to be in but hopefully we have made the most out of the opportunities that have arisen,” he said.


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