NORMANDY, France -- We're nearly a mile offshore, working some of Europe's richest oyster beds. A nasty storm brews out on the Atlantic, but the captain is not perturbed. The storm will scarcely rock his vessel, a large diesel farm tractor.
We need only heed the return of the tide, which can fall and rise as much as 50 feet, exposing and re-flooding miles of firm, sandy ocean bottom with astonishing rapidity. For safety, we always keep other tractors of the "fleet" in sight, and carry a sturdy tow cable.
A few years ago, three oystermen perished. They headed home, they thought, in a thick, winter fog, only to meet, far out to sea, the terrible, cold rush of the returning tide. But on this cool afternoon in late June, the ocean is in full retreat, granting one of the lowest tides of the month. It's a fine time to farm oysters.
And a farm it is. As far as the eye can see, tractors towing farmhands on wagons move down long rows of iron tables anchored in the sea bottom, spread with mesh sacks holding oysters in every stage of life. The sacks must be turned, to discourage algae from building up on the side that gets sunlight. Whacking the bags with sticks prevents oysters from growing into the meshes. As they grow, the shellfish must be rebagged.
Sometimes they are brought back to shore and physically scrubbed to remove unsightly fouling organisms. Before shipment to market, many are placed in concrete finishing ponds. There they will purge themselves of contaminants or, in some cases, be fed certain types of algae to give them a desirable greenish tint.
It is all very intensive work, and the price can be intensive too, with French oyster farmers getting up to $100 a bushel for their biggest oysters. But it is a system that will soon boost French oyster production ahead of that of the United States, to third in the world, behind Japan and Korea -- from an acreage of suitable growing bottom only a tiny fraction of what the United States has.
I should confess here that while researching this column, I was actually on vacation, one I did not intend to interrupt for anything resembling work. But in the end I gave in, like the late John Evans, a Smith Island waterman who after a lifetime of chasing crabs took a vacation in Hawaii. At a seaside memorial to Pearl Harbor, his wife noticed that John had disappeared. He was chasing a crab. He was sure he had seen one scuttling under a concrete abutment overhanging the water and was interested in flushing out the creature.
A rich history
Nor could I resist chasing oysters. In France, their cultural history is as long and rich as that of wine, cheese and medieval cathedrals. Poets and philosophers have been singing the praises of oysters since the time of the Roman Empire. The French had a full-blown oyster fishery more than a century ahead of the Chesapeake Bay's. Long before the first skipjack was built in Maryland, a similar-sized vessel had evolved to dredge oysters in France.
By the 1860s, about the time commercial oystering had begun its meteoric rise in the bay, the French had succeeded in decimating their "inexhaustible" natural banks of oysters. By the 1960s, decades of disease had nearly finished off both the native French oyster and the Portuguese variety, brought in as the basis for an aquaculture industry.
Around 1971, France decided to rebuild using Crassostrea gigas, the Asian oyster (which some U.S. scientists fear would overwhelm the Chesapeake's native oyster, Crassostrea virginica, if introduced in the bay). For the French, the result is a harvest that in 1990 exceeded 3 million bushels. The Chesapeake could match that figure a few decades ago, but now the bay's production has fallen to less than 200,000 bushels.
Oyster farming in France employs about 35,000 people, and the average farmer who leases bottom from the government might be compared with the family farmer in Maryland. In no way is the French industry dominated by corporate giants -- a traditional fear of Chesapeake watermen about aquaculture.
So successful are the protected, natural reefs of gigas oysters -- established by the government to produce baby oysters for aquaculture -- that the reefs must be periodically opened to dredging. Otherwise, their unchecked growth would produce a navigational hazard and also deprive nearby oyster farms of nutrients from seawater.
Oyster farming in the bay?
I asked my guide for the day, Dr. Phillipe Goulletquer, whether the Chesapeake might ever emulate the French dedication to oyster farming. He is as qualified as any to say. He worked from 1989 to 1992 as a marine scientist specializing in oysters for the University of Maryland at Solomons. Now he works out of Normandy with IFREMER, the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea. The Chesapeake's potential for oyster culture is vast, he says. The bay does not have Normandy's huge tides, but they are not a prerequisite.
However, Maryland lacks a tradition of aquaculture, says Dr. Goulletquer. France has one that dates back more than a century, to when Napoleon III, in quest of cheap seafood for the masses, poured unprecedented resources into aquaculture.
Dr. Goulletquer gives a small example to illustrate the difference in thinking. Every summer, IFREMER monitors water conditions closely, advising oystermen literally to the day when conditions are perfect for setting out hard-surfaced collection devices to catch the maximum number of "seed" -- baby oysters that will be floating in the water, looking for a place to attach and grow.
In Maryland, the state pays watermen to drag the oyster beds, turning them over to expose the clean shell surfaces vital for catching seed, or "spat." But the timing of this exercise is dictated by when the watermen need work, between oyster and crabbing season, and the shell is exposed months too early to do any good before becoming fouled again.
We have to stop our discussion. The tide has turned, and the good ship Tractor must head for shore through the long rows of tables spread with fat, healthy gigas oysters. It strikes me that except for the East and Gulf coasts of the United States, virtually all world production of oysters is dependent on this Asian variety. What if gigas develops a disease? It could be a worldwide disaster, Dr. Goulletquer acknowledges. IFREMER is doing considerable work with genetics and breeding to ward off such a possibility, but there are no guarantees.
In fact, somewhere in a French laboratory, a bubbling tank holds a small stock of "foreign" oysters, descendants of those taken from their native beds decades ago, kept now in the interests of providing genetic diversity, a fallback should a gigas plague develop. They are Crassostrea virginica -- the Chesapeake oyster.