Herpes Virus Strikes UK Oyster Beds, Could Wipe Out Local Stocks

pacific rock oyster photo

Photo by adactio via Flickr CC: "A Pacific oyster from Whitstable about to consumed on Brighton seafront."

Oysters worldwide have been faring badly. From pollution levels in filthy bays to now a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the populations of the popular shellfish have been hit hard. But now a new problem has hit the oysters of Whitstable -- a herpes virus is spreading among the Pacific variety. While not transferable to humans or even native oysters, the disease could wipe out what little harvesting is still done in the area once famed for its oyster catches. The Telegraph reports that the catch during last weekend's oyster festival was down by 8,000 and farmers are reporting high death rates among stocks. Last year, the local industry was worth £30 million with 14,000 tons of oysters, but 13,000 of which are the now threatened Pacific variety. Most of the oysters eaten at the festival were actually imported from Ireland this year.

"Oysters are dead in Whitstable," says Graham West, an oyster fisherman. "A lad goes out all day at sea and he might only get a couple of hundred. And unless we can eradicate the Pacific oysters and start again, there isn't really a future. They have become wild and are everywhere. They are like grey squirrels, taking over."

The Pacific oysters were brought in during the 1960s to replenish stocks as native oysters went on the decline. However, they've become somewhat an invasive species as fishermen leave the non-lucrative oyster trade. But even now, the herpes virus that has struck the Pacific variety can kill as much as 60% of young oysters. For a town like Whitstable whose history and reputation revolve around oysters, the problem is massive.

According to the Guardian, fisheries inspectors have banned movement of oysters from parts of Kent after Whitstable stocks were hit with the OsHV-1 virus and over 8 million oysters were wiped out. But inspectors are concerned that the virus has spread to wild oysters, which means the outbreak is next to impossible to contain or eradicate.

"It could be devastating for oyster production in other areas, for instance the south coast, so it's really important that we contain the disease," a spokeswoman for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science said. Around 1,100 tonnes of Pacific oysters are bred in the UK every year.

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