Shucks, there's an “r” in the month

Published on
September 8, 2013

Not wishing to state the very obvious, but September has arrived. For many Brits, that means the kids have returned to school after lengthy, patience-sapping summer vacations. But there’s equal enthusiasm for the ninth month of the calendar year from shellfish lovers because 1 September brings the traditional start of the oyster-eating season.

As far as U.K. shellfish enthusiasts are concerned, the “r” at the end of “September” indicates the spawning season for native oysters (Ostrea edulis) is over and the same bivalves that were once much coveted by the Romans are back on the menu, traditionally through until April the following year.

While the decline of the country’s native stocks has been well documented: today, they are a hard-to-find treat rather than the shellfish staple that they were in Victorian times. And despite the rough-shelled Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) being available most of the year round, turning to the September page on the calendar is a welcome reminder for many to simply celebrate the Great British oyster, and there’s certainly no shortage of events staged to bring in the new season either.

Early indications are, barring unforeseen circumstances, that there are good months ahead for U.K. oyster eaters and producers alike. For the latter, the Oyster Herpesvirus type 1 (OsHV-1) outbreak that has decimated French production since first being identified in 2008 has made fleeting appearances in a few U.K. fisheries, but the problem has been pretty well contained so far.

Oystermen say this may be down to manageability and good fortune rather than skill as the total oyster production is much smaller on the British side of the Channel than on the French. While France’s output is currently just below 80,000 metric tons (MT) as a result of OsHV-1, down from its pre-outbreak heights of 130,000 MT, the United Kingdom, by comparison, will be pushed to produce 1,200 MT of oysters this year, including a modest native production of less than 120 MT.

Nevertheless, France’s disease problems over the past five years have made U.K. oysters all the more popular. Typically, two-thirds of the country’s oyster production is exported, with France the No.1 end-market by some considerable margin. To ensure a constant supply of the shellfish continues, some French companies have even resorted to buying up U.K. farms. And while reports suggest this approach hasn’t gone down well with locals who are disappointed to see 100 percent of production head overseas, it does show creditable entrepreneurial determination by the French.

It also adds weight to the widely-held belief that their disease problems are not going away anytime soon despite huge ongoing efforts in the hatcheries to produce animals with higher survival rates.

Aligned with increased domestic popularity of oysters in Britain, such market forces had put prices on a sharp upward trajectory in 2011 and 2012, and while prices haven’t fallen this year, neither have they continued to follow their former double-digit increase trend.

Last week, a number of U.K. wholesalers confirmed their suppliers’ stocks were very healthy and they would therefore anticipate a good supply of oysters for the rest of this year.

While it’s a few weeks early to ascertain an average price for wholesale native oysters, they said prices for run-of –the-mill Pacifics were between GBP 0.45 (USD 0.70, EUR 0.53) and GBP 0.60 (USD 0.94, EUR 0.71) per shell, which is just a few pence more than they were a year ago. Still, it’s very likely the value of the U.K. oyster industry has increased since it was evaluated for the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB) last year. Then, based on 2011/12 prices and an analysis of the value chain, the total economic contribution of Pacific oysters alone was found to be in excess of GBP 10.1 million (USD 15.8 million, EUR 12 million).

All the sector seems to be missing now is an abundant supply of the notoriously hard to culture natives. Although as the species doesn’t like too much cold, too much warmth, too much oxygen or too much silt, producers say it’s a wonder it has lasted this long.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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