10 January 2024

Some oyster farmers won while others lost over the holidays, yet 2024 season hopes remain buoyant

| James Day
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A tinnie sits idle before an oyster farm close to a long beach coast

Dom Boyton from Merimbula Gourmet Oysters says his operation fared better than most over the break in harvesting its Sydney rock and Angazi oysters, but had issues at its smaller farm in Pambula Lake. Photo: Merimbula Gourmet Oysters.

The summer break harvest was a tentative one these past few weeks, as oyster farmers scanned the South Coast skies in hope of a respite from the rain.

Compounding rain events shying from the predictions of the Bureau of Meteorology held back some estuaries producing the delicious holiday dish from opening up during one of their key sales periods.

Anna Simmonds from Sapphire Coast Wilderness Oysters says some farmers in Merimbula Lake, Wapengo and Nelson Lagoon “snuck in to meet some last minute lucrative Christmas sales”. But those estuaries with higher catchment inflows, like Pambula and Wonboyn, did not, due to being hit hard by the late-November to early December rainfall.

She says the increased downpours have disturbed the water quality and salinity of estuaries, the two variables farmers depend on the NSW Food Authority system to approve before they can legally harvest. The significant inflows of fresh water from upstream, where it was quite dry in the first part of 2023, have introduced more sediment and silt into estuaries than usual.

READ MORE South Coast oyster farms plan reopening in time for Christmas sales after ‘bad timing’ of heavy rain

“Some estuaries have greater tidal flushing, less catchment flow and will be able to reopen early,” says Ms Simmonds.

“It’d be great to see Merimbula Lake open by the end of the week to get some January sales and ensure we have some local oysters on local menus.

“But I think the reality of compounding rain events recently means there’s some estuaries in this local region that are probably still going to be shut for two to three more weeks.”

Despite this, Ms Simmonds says their expectations for the 2024 season are extremely positive.

Dom Boyton from Merimbula Gourmet Oysters says four of the company’s harbours opened three days before Christmas, allowing sales of its Sydney rock oysters to continue until last Saturday (6 January).

He says Merimbula Lake sellers have been fortunate to remain mostly open over the past three years, unlike down in Pambula Lake, where their farm has remained closed since November.

“Over a million dozen oysters went out last year, so the farmers around here are enjoying a little break from being the only ones open,” says Mr Boyton. “But it’s very rare for us to be shut for this long.

“You can usually predict when the oysters are going to be good and bad by what the weather’s doing. These thunderstorms rolling through lately seem to dump more than what’s expected, which hasn’t allowed us to plan our farming around them.

“A lot of rivers are still a long way off being open and they didn’t get to open before Christmas. So those guys would be struggling and when they do get to open, it will be in a quieter time.”

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While the news is morose, Ms Simmonds says she always reminds customers that oysters will keep growing and will probably be in even better condition by February when farms reopen.

“So if you’re really keen to have oysters this week and you’re missing out because your favourite estuary or producer might be closed to harvest, purchase some later this month or next when everyone’s back online, and support your amazing local growers.”

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