Voyage through time with oysters as guides

Mark Hendricks, Contributor Ω

Darin Kinsey discusses French oyster cultivation at the environmental science's seminar series Jan. 14. - Photo by Mark Hendricks

Darin Kinsey discusses French oyster cultivation at the environmental science’s seminar series Jan. 14. – Photo by Mark Hendricks

On Thursday, Jan. 24, guest lecturer Darin Kinsey spoke to a gathering of nearly 30 students, staff and interested listeners about the history of oyster cultivation – or ostréiculture – in France and the parallels that can be drawn to modern fisheries.

As the presentation came to a close, a lively question and answer period ensued.  After a while, the question that is on the mind of everyone concerned about the environment was asked: will we ever learn from our mistakes?

“That’s a question I might want to ask you guys,” responded Kinsey in a joking tone that suggested it was a question he often asks himself.

Kinsey’s lecture was the second seminar in the masters of environmental science program’s semester-long seminar series.

His lecture, entitled Science on the half shell, discussed French ostréiculture and the politics of science in 19th-century France. It brought the listeners on a voyage through time with oysters as the guide.

The history of the oyster in France is a history of exploitation, Kinsey told the audience.

The French relationship with the oyster began in 120 BC, when the Gauls inhabited what would become France.

Oysters were used as a source of purple dye prized by the Roman upper classes.

Between 1400 AD to the French revolution, the demand for oysters rose. The government responded by funding scientific investment into better methods of exploiting oyster fisheries. By the time Napoleon rose to power, French scientists of the time named oysters as “the healthiest of foods.”

After the Napoleonic era, natural oyster beds began to collapse due to the spread of an aquatic parasite. The government then began importing alien species of oyster that were resistant to the parasite and promoting scientific research to improve the ostréiculture industry.

In the modern era, oysters are considered both a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, but the natural oyster native to French waters has been almost completely replaced with Japanese oysters.

This history of state-funded scientific research into exploitation can be compared with the trends found in herring, flatfish and cod fisheries by analyzing maps showing fish cultivation at different periods of time. This is a dangerous and unsustainable trend according to Kinsey.

“The more the state and scientists involve themselves in issues relating to improving exploitation,” Kinsey said, “the more unsustainable the fisheries become and the more threatened the species being exploited become.”

The environmental science seminar series are open to everyone and will be taking place on Thursdays in room S203 in the science building. A full listing of dates along with abstracts of the presentations can be found on TRU’s website at