Setúbal (Portugal) (AFP)

It took Célia Rodrigues "courage and a lot of perseverance" to win her crazy bet to become an oyster farmer in the Sado estuary, in order to produce Portuguese oysters there decades after their near disappearance.

"It is a species which was in danger of disappearing and which was doomed to abandonment", explains to AFP this energetic woman of 47 years, at the edge of a muddy basin in the salt marsh of the Sado estuary, river that joins the Atlantic Ocean near the city of Setubal, about 50 km south of Lisbon.

These hollow oysters, called in Latin Crassostrea Angulata, "the French produced them between the 1860s and 1970s, which is why some still nostalgia for Portuguese oysters," she says with pride.

Succeeding the flat oyster, the Portuguese oyster became the predominant species before being wiped out by disease and in turn replaced by the Japanese oyster, Crassostrea Gigas, more resistant and faster growing.

The Sado estuary experienced its oystercatcher peak in 1968, with the export of 10,000 tonnes of wild Angulata collected by thousands of people.

From the beginning of the 1970s, the mollusc ceased to be exploited there for about forty years because, in addition to the disease of the gills, it also suffered from the pollution caused by several infant industries and wastewater from some 120,000 inhabitants of Setubal.

- A healthier ecosystem -

"In the 1960s and 1970s, this ecosystem suffered a set of dramatic factors and oysters were among the most affected species," notes Francisco Ferreira, president of the environmental NGO Zero.

But when Portugal joined the ancestor of the European Union in 1985, the country had to pass tougher nature protection laws.

"It took about 15 years to see the results," but the Setubal wastewater treatment plant finally came into operation in 2003.

The same year, a compound used in the naval industry and very harmful to oysters, tributyltin or TBT, was banned internationally, continues the ecologist who now notes "an obvious improvement" in pollution levels. the estuary.

From the beginning of the 2010s, local fishermen started to find some wild oysters there again.

Thanks to Portugal's milder climate, these mollusks grow there faster than in France and export sectors have already developed in the salt marshes of the Algarve, on the south coast, and Aveiro, 250 km away. north of Lisbon.

- An uncertain origin -

But Célia Rodrigues was among the first to want to regenerate the native oyster which, according to an unconfirmed historical hypothesis, would in fact have arrived in Portugal from the island of Taiwan by clinging to the hull of the caravels of the Great Discoveries of the 16th century. century.

After spending 14 years perfecting her methods, the oyster farmer and her five employees hope in 2021 to double production, which this year will reach 35 tonnes.

However, the Portuguese Angulata represents barely 20% of that volume because, she says pragmatically, "you have to start by making money somewhere first".

Among the ten producers from the bay of Setubal who have followed in Célia Rodrigues' footsteps, Pedro Ferreira also aspires to give a second life to the Portuguese oyster.

For the time being, the company he runs produces 90% of Japanese Gigas, which are highly prized by his customers, including the major French brands such as Gillardeau, Geay or Cadoret.

"Everything will depend on the commercial success of the Angulata, which is proving difficult, but we want to distinguish ourselves from our competitors with a different product", explains the entrepreneur associated with the Frenchman Eric Marissal, founder of the Grainocéan hatchery in La Rochelle.

- An export product -

As oysters are practically absent from Portuguese gastronomic culture, their production remains essentially export oriented.

"The internal market does not value quality oysters", notes Pedro Ferreira, who has raised nearly 3 million euros to invest in the installation of 20,000 bags and 7,000 baskets of oysters on a small island of mud that emerges from the waters of the Sado estuary only at low tide.

This year, Exporsado and its twenty employees will produce around 100 tonnes of shellfish, but its project, the most ambitious in the region, foresees an annual production of 550 tonnes of oysters from 2022.

Pressed by the rising tide, a few men equipped with rubber waders load their boat with dozens of bags of oysters which, once brought ashore, will be mechanically sorted before being put back into the water to continue to grow.

On the bank, the cranes of a major shipyard and the chimneys of a pulp mill still loom on the horizon, while schools of birds fly over the oyster beds of the nature reserve of the Sado estuary.

© 2020 AFP