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article imageAre herpes-infected oysters the latest victims of warm seawater?

By R. C. Camphausen     Aug 24, 2010 in Environment
In previous years, oysters infected with a herpes virus have been found on French coasts, but now they've also been detected in the UK. Most die of the disease, a problem for fishers and gourmets. Unusually warm seawater may be the cause.
The article in National Geographic opens in a light and humorous tone with the sentence "Don't worry — oyster herpes isn't a new side effect of eating the food of love," but for the rest it is dead serious.
For the first time, in the summer of 2010, herpes infected oysters have been found in British waters. What is worse, this is a new strain of the herpes virus that can kill 80 percent of a so-called oyster-bed within a week. The magazine summarizes the situation with this concise statement: The incurable, deadly virus is ... alarming fishing communities in Europe, where oyster herpes seems to be spreading — and could go on spreading as seas continue to warm, experts say.
Infected oysters were first detected in French beds in 2008 and ever since, according to the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer). In French waters, the virus killed between 20 and 100 percent of some beds, and now it seems the virus has travelled across the channel and arrived in British waters, especially in the area where the Thames enters the sea.
Although the article says twice that experts speculate that global warming may play a role, the mention of the Thames region warrants some attention as well. Kevin Denham of the British government's Fish Health Inspectorate says that the virus remains dormant in water below 16 C (61 degrees F), yet develops and becomes lethal when temperatures rise above these numbers. The virus then attacks young oysters when the mollusks are focused on producing sperm and eggs, a time during which they no energy left to maintain their immune system.
Another possibility for the contamination across the channel may have been that a an oyster-harvesting company had been working in France and brought the virus along with their tools and machinery. It is unclear at the moment if the virus could spread beyond Europe.
For a beautiful image of oysters releasing eggs and sperms, visit the magazine.
More about Oysters, Herpes, Virus, Atlantic, Franch
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