I have just returned from a week’s field course in Brittany, at the CRESCO (Centre de recherche et enseignement des systemès cotiers) in Dinard. This research station provides a base for IFREMER (French fisheries board) and the MNHN (Natural History Museum) to monitor the ecology of the Northern coast of France and the channel. Our time was spent studying the flora and fauna of coastal ecosystems, the influence of natural processes on these, but also on the role of man in shaping an extremely biodiverse region.
Tuesday morning on the salt marshes, in the shadow of Mont St Michel. This island floats above the misty horizon, giving the bay a mystical appearance. To the west, more structures appear equally surreal given that we are now one kilometre away from dry land. It is the oyster and mussel beds, harvested for over 200 years which stand against the rising and falling tides. But changes have come; a mechanisation of collection, an expansion of the mussel beds and a genetic variant increasing oyster size have allowed for an increase in production. These are now thought to have paved the way for population crashes as a result of parasites and reduced fertility. Conchyliculturers (shell fish farmers) dodge responsibility and avoid discussion of malpractice, whilst waxing lyrical on their inability to pay for ever increasing loan repayments. They blame INFRAMER for providing them with dodgy stock (“a government conspiracy?”), and yet continue to seek expansion. Our professors take all this with a pinch of salt, and explain later that a change is necessary, and that we can no longer exploit as before, for the littoral floral and faunal communities cannot support it.
Friday morning on the banks of a coastal inlet, in a small Breton village called St. Suliac. Inside the town church, parts of which date back to the Roman occupation, a strong link can be felt with the community and the sea. Stained glass figures cross the shore on a pilgrimage, with salicorn haelophyte plants (adapted to a salty environment) at their feet. A wooden sailor, whose wreck of a ship is battered by waves, grabs a staff offered to him by the Virgin Mary. But this town too is not what it once was. In 1960, EDF (Electricité de France) began constructing a tidal dam to harness the energy of the tides. Kid yourself not; this was no green initiative, for no ecological surveys were undertaken. The construction of the dam totally altered the tides of the estuary behind it, which once experienced the third highest tidal regime in the world, and which now experiences almost none.
Changes in the composition of the ecosystem community have been measured for 30 years by CRESCO, with impact assessments on flow rates, sediment deposition and offspring recruitment. Surprisingly, the estuary has experiences a rise in biodiversity. The dam created a new niche by providing constant water cover, and as a result has seen a flourishment in bird populations, algal communities and migratory fish. But below the surface all is not well, for a further human-induced change in the landscape is proving worrying for the researchers at CRESCO. Crepidule forniacata, a bivalve mollusc from the US which was introduced to the French coast during the D-Day landings by American ships has now successfully established itself right along the coast (partially as a result of an association with conchyculture). Alien species are rarely good news, and this one is worrying both researchers and shellfish farmers since it changes the seabed composition, homogenising it and thus excluding other species.
Natural spaces are, and for a long time have been, managed and altered by man, and the future offers no respite. A synthesis of resource extraction and land management are required, in particular in areas such as these where cultural practice are entrenched within the community. The bay of Mont St. Michel is currently undergoing such an overhaul, with the implementation of National Park Status and developments to restore its marine character by demolishing the car park and spit which currently connect it to the mainland (Project Marin de l’Agence des Aires Marines Protégées). These developments are sure to increase protection given to natural spaces, but are also thought to impact on conchylicultureres.
Such big decisions are often heavily weighted against by local politicians, who as upstanding members of the community are often mussel farmers themselves (the one we met was the local mayor). Tourism companies too hold sway. The island of Mont St Michel is one of the most visited sites in France, and such a high turnover is of great importance to the local economy; serious amounts of money are threatened to be withdrawn by Japanese tour groups whose packed schedules rely on a carpark. But big governance under the European Union has pushed through reforms in environmental legislation, forcing local communities to adapt and find more sustainable methods. The Water Framework Directive, the Natura 2000 habitats of importance and Marine Strategy Framework are all making noticeable differences to marine legislation and management.
On the train home back to the city, I reflected on the trip and for one of the first times when considering the biodiversity issue, I had a glimpse of a solution. Resource, energy and leisure extraction from an ecosystem can only be managed by the implementation of global governance based on cultural understanding. Easy no...?