Th oyster history

The History of the Oyster

The native French oyster, the flat oyster (Ostrea Edulis), commonly known as the Belon oyster, has been around since antiquity. Harvested on the coasts, it was shipped as far as Rome where it was highly sought-after. The oyster was known to the Romans as "calliblepharis", literally meaning "beautiful eyelids" due to sides of its mantle. Despite Roman know-how in the field of oyster farming, the flat oyster was not cultivated in France during this period. Written accounts refer to the harvesting of natural flat oyster stocks during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period.

It was in the 17th century that the first oyster farms began to develop in the salt water marshes of the Atlantic Coast, followed by specially managed ponds in the Marennes-Oléron region. The method employed consisted of collecting oyster spat from rocks or dredging them from natural beds and transferring them to the purpose-built ponds.

In the 18th century, the fundamental role of salt as a currency acquired in the Middle Ages declined. This significant social and economic loss led to the end of salt production, leading to the freeing up of numerous salt marsh areas. The Atlantic coast, where the impact of the decision was particularly keenly felt, now had tens of thousands of hectares of available marshland. Rather than being abandoned, shellfish farming - and more particularly oyster farming - began to develop on these sites. However, oyster farming remained heavily dependent on spat collected from rocks or dredged from the sea. Natural beds were thus over-harvested and began to disappear. From time to time during the 1850's, decrees were issued banning the harvesting of flat oysters from natural beds on the French coasts.

And so it was that modern oyster farming began to develop. To overcome the problem of declining yields from flat oyster spat fishing and the ban on harvesting, the idea of immersing wooden stakes to provide a setting medium for the spat emerged: setting on collectors was developed.

Because of the shortage of flat oysters, Portuguese oysters (Crassostrea Angulata) began to be imported into the Arcachon Basin in the 1860's. A chance event led to the species populating French waters and eventually being farmed there. In the 1860's, a cargo ship laden with Portuguese oysters destined for Arcachon was forced to dump its cargo into the Gironde estuary when it got caught in a storm.

The species, which is robust and resistant, developed quickly. It soon replaced the flat oyster on the Atlantic coast. In the 1900's, flat oysters made up one-third of the oyster catch whilst the Portuguese oysters made up the remaining two-thirds.

During the 1920's, the flat oyster was almost completely wiped out by massive mortality rates. Initially confined to the south-west, the Portuguese oyster was then introduced into all the production basins. Hence, in the 1960s, the production of Portuguese oysters accounted for almost 80% of total production, while flat oysters represented just 20%.

However, during the 1970's, the Portuguese oyster was decimated by disease and disappeared from French coastal waters. Following the epidemic, the introduction of the Japanese Pacific cupped oyster (Crassostrea Gigas) enabled cupped oyster farming to start again in France. Today, this is the most widely cultivated species in France and the world.