ARCACHON, France (Reuters Life!) - French oyster lovers may have to go without one of their favorite Christmas treats this year as a persistent killer virus eats into stocks and drives up prices by as much as 40 percent.
Oyster Herpesvirus type 1, or OsHV-1 -- a herpes virus that is deadly for baby oysters -- first struck in France in 2008, wiping out juveniles in droves at breeding sites from the northern coast of Brittany to the Mediterranean sea.
As the briny-tasting molluscs take three years to plump up to a good size for eating, this is the first festive season the shortage will be felt, as the French look to tuck into platters of slippery raw oysters with lemon and shallot vinegar at Christmas and New Year feasts.
"You could say this is our last big Christmas. It's a catastrophe," said Renan Henry, an oyster producer who last year set up the Committee to Save Oyster Farming over the virus. He said a third of France's oyster breeders could go bust in 2011.
In the southwestern seaside town of Arcachon, breeder Jerome Delarue fears he will run out of oysters from early January after losing 80 percent of his juveniles in three years. "I am wondering whether I shouldn't just give up completely," he said.
The CNC national shellfish farming committee says oyster production has dropped to 80,000 tonnes this year from 130,000 tonnes in normal times, prompting prices to surge by as much as 40 percent in recent weeks, ahead of the year-end rush.
France is the world's fourth-largest oyster producer after China, Japan and Korea, with some 4,000 mainly family-owned breeding farms along its shores employing some 11,000 people.
Scientists believe the OsHV-1 virus is fatal to baby oysters because they have spent more energy developing their sexual organs than on building up their natural defenses.
Oyster farms in Asia have so far been unaffected by the epidemic, prompting hopes a resistant species could be found.
Scientists recently traveled to Japan to bring back oyster species and are testing them to see if they prove resistant in French waters, CNC President Goulven Brest told Reuters.
The CNC is also cross breeding survivors to try and develop a "super-resistant " strain that can fight off the virus.
That still leaves oyster industry in a state of crisis for the time being.
"Even if we stopped (the virus) tomorrow, the first harvest still wouldn't come out until around 2015. How are we supposed to survive until then?" Renan lamented.
Additional reporting and writing by Vicky Buffery in Paris; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato