Image supplied by South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC).
THE pristine coastline of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula lays claim to producing some of the world’s finest seafood.
Spanning more than 2000km, harvesting under strict conditions has resulted in high quality yields of Southern Bluefin Tuna, rock lobster, awarding winning abalone and the infamous Eyre Peninsula ‘Pacific Oysters’.
In recent years, the oyster industry in particular has been leading an uphill battle against the devastating pacific oyster mortality syndrome (POMS) with an outbreak of the virus discovered in Tasmania in February 2016.
The discovery led to a ban on spat imports from the state into South Australia with local growers still feeling the effects.
Executive officer of the South Australian Oyster Growers Association Trudy McGowan said the industry is expecting to see 30 per cent of normal annual sales.
“Unfortunately, the farmers have been hit hard and we’ve had a huge amount of job losses - the industry is going to be very difficult for the next two years at least.”
Ms McGowan said producers have been forced off their farms in order to find a supplementary income while they patiently wait for new spat to come through.
“When they can see they’re in a bad situation, they look to see how they can manage that to the best of their abilities.”
With the assistance of the South Australian government, Ms McGowan said the industry has been able to invest in two new hatcheries.
“These will expand the capacity of the hatcheries we already have in production and, if we able to maintain a POMS free status, we will be able to sell spat interstate and internationally which will, moving forward, be a big benefit to farmers.”
Farmers have seen a huge shift in the industry since the Tasmanian outbreak, normally taking on about 150-200 million spat each year.
“We’ve only had a very small number of spat available to farmers compared to our average so we’re very behind in the season.”
Ms McGowan said, even though there was some lingering fear for the future of the industry, there was a consistently high demand for young oysters.
“We are making the spat available to producers as it comes online.”
Eyre oysters are produced in six main growing areas including Coffin Bay, Streaky Bay, Smoky Bay, Denial Bay and St Peter’s Island.
Grown on ocean outcrops, the Eyre Peninsula oyster population are raised in pristine waters, isolated from estuary and farming run-off making the area the perfect place for production.
Ms McGowan said farmers experiencing massive production and financial loss due to POMS are eligible to receive assistance through Centrelink and Rural Support Services.
“Our growers have been made aware of the support available to them.
“The South Australian government has also removed lease and licence fees for the next two years which is the equivalent of $1.5 million in revenue and that’s been of great assistance.”
Coming into the winter production season, Ms McGowan said farmers will be focusing on growing out the small number of spat they have, managing their growth in order to prolong the flow of product onto the market.
“POMS goes dormant and is not found in oysters during winter, realistically disappearing once the temperature reaches below 18 degrees, so winter is the time when those young oysters don’t have that threat.
“Producers will be looking to have their oysters on the market as soon as possible to ensure an income, however, peak market season is over summer so farmers are trying to manage growth to even out their finances and keep some stock for that peak season.”
Ms McGowan said the summer demand for southern oysters was a double-edge sword for the industry with POMS more likely to be spread once the waters begin to warm.
Posing no threat to humans, POMS is a rapid spreading virus which can cause upwards of 95 per cent mortality in the first outbreak, leaving producers empty-handed and out of pocket.
Ms McGowan said, although cases of POMS had been reported in feral oyster populations along Port River in February, the Eyre Peninsula remained free of the devastating virus.
“It has remained outside of our growing region and our industry is more closely watching their farms for the slightest concerns around mortality.”
The Federal Government, in conjunction with both the Tasmanian and South Australian oyster industry has invested $1 million in an ongoing research program to develop a POMS-resistant oyster.
“This has been running for the past three years and we’re breeding from survivors with the intention to have a fairly resistant breed.”
Ms McGowan said, once established, the new breed will be placed into crops which have suffered outbreaks.
With less product hitting the SA, Victorian and Queensland restaurant scene, Ms McGowan said there was some concern of a price increase with some restaurants selling Eyre oysters for upwards of $40/dozen.
“The increase is simply due to the shortage of stock - it’s about supply and demand and producers are doing their best in a tough situation.”
A notifiable disease, POMS must be immediately reported to Fishwatch on 1800 065 522.