No Moules-Frites for French Gulls
Laureline Chassaing and Pauline Loubat from LPO (BirdLife in France) tell us about their efforts to help mussel farmers protect their stocks from hungry gulls on the island of Olèron – an inspiring example of how conservationists can work with farmers to make the aquaculture industry more sustainable.
Mussels and chips or ‘moules-frites’ is more than just a dish – it’s an iconic part of French gastronomic culture. Polls frequently rank this steaming pot and all its variations (marinière, à la crème, à la bière, à la-everything) amongst the top three ‘most popular French dishes’ and, accordingly, tens of thousands of tonnes of mussels are cultivated every year to feed the nation’s appetite. And people are not the only ones with a taste for this delicacy…
Gulls may not care so much for dipping frites into white wine stock, but they certainly have a taste for the mussels. Indeed, in 2013, a survey of mussel farmers’ impressions indicated that these hungry gulls were responsible for as much as 30% of production losses. Consequently, many farmers feel forced to use drastic measures to prevent these winged pirates from plundering their treasure – often the gulls are shot (illegally) and their carcasses are displayed around the farms as scarecrows.
Seabirds need to eat. Farmers need to farm. This is a classic case of what conservationists call ‘predator conflicts’. The question is, how do you find a solution that works for all? LPO (BirdLife in France) has been actively working towards finding an answer.
In Boyardville on the island of Oléron (off France’s Atlantic coast in Charente-Maritime), there is a rich tradition of mussel farming, dating back to the 1860s. Though the area became part of the Moeze-Oléron National Nature Reserve (managed by LPO) in the early 1990s, mussel farming continued on the condition that it have no negative impacts of the environment.
And so, in 2014, LPO began a three year project in collaboration with local farmers and the regional aquaculture committee with the goal of finding a sustainable solution to this sensitive ‘seagull’ issue. We began by setting up a study base to observe the birds’ behavior and distribution around mussel farming areas. At the same time, CREAA (the Regional Centre for Testing & Application in Aquaculture) assessed the productivity of mussel stakes (the wooden posts on which the mussels are cultivated), both with and without gull protection measures.
The following year, LPO studied the frequentation (species, age) and behavior (resting, feeding) patterns of the local birds and trialed a visual deterrent method aimed at gulls. Then, in 2016, all the data was analyzed, with some interesting results. The most recorded bird on the mussels farms was the immature (2-yr to 4-yr) Herring Gull, despite there being no large breeding colony in the area. It was found that temporal avian frequentation varies from year to year with no clear pattern. However, there does appear to be a link here with mussel farmers’ activities, particularly different production methods.
While the results of the trialed visual deterrent method were not conclusive, the experiment should still be considered a success. The process of collaboration over the past three years has greatly improved communication between mussel farmers and conservationists and this, in turn, is helping to curb illegal shooting of the gulls – it is an inspiring example of how we can work with farmers to make the aquaculture industry more sustainable. So, things are looking hopeful for 2017 when a new gull deterrent will be developed and tested over a longer period and wider range. Watch this space!
Laureline Chassaing - Service Civique LPO.
Pauline Loubat - Marine Programme Coordinator, LPO.
 The project is a collaborative effort from LPO, mussel farmers, the CREAA (Regional Center for Testing and Application in Aquaculture), the CRC Poitou-Charentes (Comité Régional Conchylicole), supported by the French Marine Protected Areas Agency (AAMP).
 In 2014 (at most): 121 birds, 2015: 144 and 2016: 317