The battle to bring oysters to Xmas tables

There’s been a momentous effort to ensure Australians can tuck into fresh Sydney rock oysters on Christmas Day, after years of natural disasters took a toll on the industry.

Port Macquarie oyster farmer Paul Wilson seriously doubted he would be able to meet demand after watching wild weather wreak havoc during the past two years.

“We just didn’t think we’d come back two months ago, there was no chance of getting oysters on Christmas,” Mr Wilson told AAP from his farm along the Hastings River.

He watched half his crop float away during flooding in 2021 and feared months of unrelenting rain in 2022 had spoiled the rest of his oysters, which need salt water to grow.

Finally, storms cleared and his oysters thrived, enabling Mr Wilson to harvest enough in December.

Scientists from the University of Technology Sydney and NSW authorities have been working with oyster farmers impacted by natural disasters to develop a way to monitor conditions in real time so harvesting plans could be adapted.

Project lead Professor Shauna Murray saw first hand how the industry did everything it could to hold on to precious crops, quickly taking on new technology and ideas.

“I don’t think it’s luck,” Professor Shauna Murray said.

“I think that shellfish farming is an incredibly resilient industry. They’ve gone through so much but they’re just really, really able to adapt and change and keep going despite all the setbacks.”

About $138 million worth of oysters was produced in Australia during the 2020-21 financial year, according to a recent report from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

While some farmers in central and northern NSW suffered big losses, a bumper year in Tasmania, South Australia and southern parts of NSW meant there was still plenty of Pacific Oysters, according to Oysters Tasmania CEO Duncan Spender.

Farmers in his state were also hit by wild weather but made use of dry conditions in recent weeks, meaning fears of a large scale oyster shortage never eventuated.

“I don’t think there’s any particular shortage that will be noticed anywhere in Australia this year,” Mr Spender told AAP.

“We’ve had enough clear weather over the past month in Tasmania that we’ve been able to mostly supply our Christmas demand.”

Sydney Fish Market fishmonger Carmelo Lombardo had to source Sydney rock oysters from Western Australia and other interstate locations this year.

“When it comes to retail sales, people just want to know that they’re buying a nice, fresh, sustainable oyster,” Mr Lombardo said in between serving customers at his business Get Fish.

Although retailers and distributors have found a savvy work around this Christmas, back in Port Macquarie Mr Wilson is firmly focused on 2023.

He estimates he is about 12 months behind on production, as only 50 per cent of his crop is growing as expected.

“Hopefully oysters will continue to grow through summer and reach some sort of market size, but at the moment, probably available sales stock will run out well before Easter,” Mr Wilson said.

“They’re at the absolute peak right now, they won’t get any better, they can’t get any better really.”

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