Croatian oyster farmers hope lockdown easing will save some of season's harvest

MALI STON, Croatia (Reuters) – Oyster farmers in Croatia are worried this season’s harvest will go to waste as the outbreak of the new coronavirus means tourists, the main consumers of the delicacy on the Dalmatian coast, stay away.

Now that the government has begun to partially lift a lockdown imposed in mid-March, some are hoping that the reopening of restaurants will restore at least some of the demand.

The oyster farms of Mali Ston, a stunning bay on the southern Adriatic Peljesac peninsula which lies 50 kilometres (31 miles) northwest of Dubrovnik, produce around two million oysters every year. Their industry has taken a severe hit from the pandemic.

“Some 90% of our production of oysters goes to restaurants here and in Dubrovnik area. There is little consumption among the locals. So, we can expect huge losses this year,” said Marija Radic, who heads an association of oyster producers in Mali Ston.

Two weeks ago the Croatian government decided to restart the economy in several phases, and restaurants and bars have been allowed to reopen, provided they follow strict hygiene rules..

“Up to now there was no possibility to sell them. I would be happy if we managed this season just to cover the (production) costs and keep some financial potential for production next year,” said Zdravko Lazic, an oyster farmer from Mali Ston.

Lazic had just returned from visiting his farm out in the bay, which is dotted with buoys and surrounded by low hills.

Croatia, where tourism accounts for almost 20% of its annual gross domestic product, is still holding out for some tourists this year.

For oyster farmers, these tourists need to come before the summer heat.

“The oysters are sensitive and do not like warm sea water in the summer. So, we are also facing a potentially high level of their mortality and losses for us,” Radic said. Some estimate that the mortality figure could reach as much as 40%.

Pre-lockdown, the average price of an oyster in a local restaurant was around 15 kuna ($2.15).

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