Twice in the past 40 years, French oyster farmers were saved by their colleagues on Japan's northern Pacific coast. After the March 11 tsunami, they decided it was time to return the favor.
Last week they kicked off an aid effort to help oyster growers who lost everything when the seabed quake sent a massive tsunami barreling into Japan's northeast, destroying entire towns -- and their livelihoods.
A seven-ton shipment of oyster farm equipment -- buoys, ropes and fishermen's clothing -- arrived from Charente-Maritime and Brittany in western France at Tokyo's Narita International airport.
The gear was trucked to the Sanriku region, where oyster farmers hoping to rebuild their world-famous industry must hurry to kick off the growth cycle for oysters by the middle of the month.
"It's a race against time," said Arnaud Rastoul, director of logistics company SDV, in charge of transporting the material.
To start off a new generation of oysters, farmers must suspend ropes fitted with shells in the ocean. These attract larvae or embryos that will grow into food oysters within three years.
Operation "France o-kaeshi" (France returns the gift) recalls those times in 1970 and 1990 when disease outbreaks wrecked French oyster farms, and Japanese growers provided larvae to help them start again.
"In Japan, if you receive a gift, it is customary to give something back," Robert Verdier, president of the microfinance group PlaNet Finance Japan and the project coordinator, told AFP.
"So today it's the turn of the French to come to the aid of their Japanese colleagues. After the devastating tsunami of March 11, oyster farmers and fishermen in northeastern Japan lost everything -- the oyster beds, boats, houses and equipment. We must rebuild everything."
In France, the project has been driven by Patrice Mulot, president of SAS Mulot, the world's leading manufacturer of oyster farming equipment.
In Japan, the company Sanriku Oysters, headed by Hiroaki Saito, is responsible for identifying the needs of oyster farmers and the distribution of the materials.
The first shipment went to the devastated ports of Kesennuma and Miyako. A second shipment of over 3.6 tons followed. "But we are only at the beginning, and rebuilding the industry will take several years," Verdier cautioned.
Success is seen as vital for all involved -- the Sanriku region is considered "the conservation home of the oyster", he said.
"Eighty percent of the larvae in Japan come from Sanriku, and whenever a country suffers an (oyster) disease outbreak, it uses the area to save its oyster industry," said Verdier.
"France knows this. To cope with another outbreak, it had planned to again order Sanriku larvae on March 15... Then history was reversed."© Agence France-Presse