‹ Go back
16 Aug 2014
Mussel growers in western France have called for emergency state aid as they face an unprecedented squeeze following a 90-per-cent plunge in production of the shellfish blamed on bad weather and pollution.
With not nearly enough local supply to meet demand for the beloved delicacy, French restaurants are now being forced to rely on imports of Irish, Dutch and Italian moules to accompany their frites.
Producers in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle say the decline, which started six months ago, is catastrophic for the local economy. They have staged two protests in recent weeks, dumping piles of oyster shells and dead mussels outside the Préfecture to demand action over a crisis they attribute to seawater contamination.
Normally we would collect five to seven tonnes of mussels a day at this time of year, said Hugues Morin, a 46-year-old mussel producer. Now we’re only getting about 100 grammes (3.5 ounces). Mr Morin, who employs six workers, said he had collected almost no mussels to sell this season after producing 750 tonnes of the shellfish last year.
Mr Morin and other growers said they had never seen so few live adult mussels of a marketable size on the “bouchots” - wooden pilings in the sea with ropes wrapped around them where the mussels grow.
Scientists suggested that bacteria had killed most of the molluscs.
Storms and heavy rain last winter favoured the development of the bacterium Vibrio splendidus, according to Jean-Pierre Baud of the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER). “hese bacteria have always existed but they are now being found in larger quantities, which could explain the abnormally high death rate of mussels. However, growers are sceptical. “That’s what they want us to believe but I think it’s also because of the poor quality of the water and pesticides that pollute the rivers that feed water into the sea,” Mr Morin said. His father, Jean-Luc, 73, said he had never seen anything like it.
A spokesman for local shellfish producers, Benoît Duriveaud, said pollution was the main cause: The seabed around the harbours is cleared to allow boats to come in and out and all the sludge and sediment that’s scraped up is chucked into the sea.
Mussel growers estimate their losses at about €20 million (more than £16 million) or 10,000 tonnes of mussels, equivalent to about a fifth of national production. The worst-affected Charente-Maritime region is France’s third largest mussel producing area after Brittany and Normandy.
Even in a good year, the French eat more mussels than they produce, making up the shortfall with imports from other European countries.
Growers in Charrente-Maritime, who fear they could be driven out of business, are lobbying the government for emergency aid to help them survive the crisis. A spokesman for the Ministry of Transport and Fisheries said €1.5 million (£1.2 million) would “soon be made available”.
The collapse in production has led restaurants that specialise in moules-frites such as the Léon de Bruxelles chain and the renowned Chicorée in the northern city of Lille to turn to suppliers in the Netherlands, Italy and Ireland.
Organisers of Lille’s annual flea market, the Braderie, where up to 800 tonnes of mussels are eaten in only two days in September, are confident there will be no shortage of moules-frites this year - but only thanks to imports.
Oyster production has also been hit. A mysterious disease is believed to have caused the deaths of up to 80 per cent of adult oysters in farms around the French coast last year. Production has fallen by more than a third since a devastating virus struck in 2008.
Source: The Sunday Telegraph, London.