No oysters? Herpes virus looms over France

Thomas Catonnet listens for the tell-tale death rattle at his oyster farm in France’s Arcachon Bay, as a falling tide exposes victims of a lethal virus ravaging the nation’s 157-year-old shellfish industry.

“You smell a particular odor and you hear the sound of shells,” said Catonnet, 33, sorting baby oysters in a wooden shack near the end of a 20-kilometer (12-mile) sandbar that shelters the bay from the Atlantic Ocean west of the city of Bordeaux. “A putrid smell. Nobody understands it.” 

A herpes virus has decimated oysters along France’s 5,500- kilometer coast for a fourth season, making the shellfish an ever-more exclusive treat for year-end holiday meals that account for half of the country’s oyster sales. 

Farm-gate prices for oysters have jumped 65 percent in three years because of the disease, said Goulven Brest, head of France’s shellfish-growers committee. He frets that high prices, which help keep growers like Catonnet afloat, and fewer oysters threaten an industry with 630 million euros ($823 million) in sales in 2009. 

“The consumer is losing interest in the product because we have less to market,” Brest said. “We can’t charge more. We’ve reached a price beyond which demand will plummet.” 

Retail prices for oysters in Paris have climbed to between 14 and 17 euros a dozen in some neighborhoods, from 12 to 14 euros a dozen in 2010, he said. Wholesale prices in October climbed 8.2 percent from a year earlier and 26 percent from two years ago, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies in Paris.

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