Scotland’s oyster industry under pressure

Published on
July 9, 2012

In the same week that SeafoodSource Contributing Editor Jason Holland reported on the impact of the herpes virus on New Zealand’s oyster industry, I heard rumblings in Scotland about a growing shortage of full grown stock and took a call from a major foodservice supplier asking about availability.

The oyster herpes virus (OsHV-1?var) that has devastated stocks of the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) in many parts of France and elsewhere continues to affect the availability and market price of oysters in Europe. It now looks as if it could have a structural effect on the Scottish oyster industry as well.

Unable to nurture small stock in its own country, French oyster farmers are traveling to Scotland, offering to buy up farms and/or stock to supply back into France. This is a worrying trend that could make less stock available for the UK market. 

One farm, Kyle of Tongue Oysters, has already been taken over by French company SCEA Huitres Jmc. The production area is being expanded to enable SCEA Huitres to bring in 10 to 15 million seed oysters from Morecambe Bay Oysters, the hatchery and nursery specialists in northern England. The oyster seed will be grown in Scotland to 15 grams and then taken to France, by which time they should be much less susceptible to the oyster herpes virus.   

For many years, French companies have used Ireland as a back door to France for oyster supply, and a number of Irish farms are owned by or run in cooperation with French producers. However, the oyster herpes virus is now prevalent in large parts of Ireland, hence the move to Scotland, which is still virus free.

According to Rob Michell, commercial director of SSMG, Scotland’s biggest supplier of farmed shellfish, stocks of oysters are getting ever harder to source. “Herpes in France is still a very big issue, resulting in extensive mortalities, which in turn has pushed the price up, so UK growers want to sell there” he said. “We are just about managing to keep our customers happy but have no spare capacity.”

Asked why the cooperative is not selling everything to France, Rob explained that SSMG needs to keep the bigger picture in mind and to maintain supplies to its large retail customers. “We are tied into supply agreements for mussels and other shellfish and don’t want to jeopardise that situation. We have put prices up slightly, but there is a definite ceiling in the UK,” he explained.   

SSMG has taken calls from a number of other suppliers in the past few weeks desperate for oysters, and it seems distinctly possible that oyster enthusiasts in the UK will find it harder and more expensive to find their favorite food in the future.

Meanwhile, one of Scotland’s largest oyster growers, Caledonian Oysters, advises that the poor weather this spring and summer has slowed down growth, and as a result they’re struggling to maintain supplies to their usual customers. Loch Fyne Oysters, who supplies the chain of restaurants of the same name, are also short on supply.  

All of these factors suggest that now would be a good time to increase production capacity in Scotland. But the difficulty in obtaining suitable new sites, the two- to three-year growth period for oysters in Scotland, and the difficulty in obtaining sufficient seed make it impossible to expand production rapidly.

Kelsey Thomson, who operates the Morecambe Bay Oysters hatchery and nursery, confirmed that he is working flat out to supply customers but can’t keep up with the increase in demand.  

For several years, there has been talk of building a Scottish oyster hatchery to secure supply for growers. This project is still in the development stage but inching further toward getting off the ground. It remains to be seen if it can be the big white hope for the future it is predicted to be.

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