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Bluff oyster season off to a strong start

Friday 6 March 2020

While the rock lobster sector is doing it hard, there is good news on the Bluff oyster front.

The season, which began last Sunday (Mar 1), has had a positive start, according to Invercargill-based Barnes Oysters general manager Graeme Wright.

He had 50 people waiting outside the Spey Street store on Monday morning, keen to sample the season’s first Bluffies at $26 a dozen.

There was the usual “crazy demand” but the company would continue its standard practice of being loyal to locals, with about 70 percent of the catch sold in Southland in the first few weeks.

And the annual homage to the Foveaux Strait delicacy, the Bluff Oyster Festival on May 23, has been sold out since Christmas.

The Total Allowable Commercial Catch has again been set at 15 million oysters, but the quota holders are taking a conservative approach, opting to catch just half that amount – 7.5 million oysters – at this early stage.

That will be reviewed in a month or so, depending on catches, the weather and the health of the shellfish.

Wednesday was a day off, courtesy of 50 knot westerly and four-metre seas.

A similar management approach was taken last year and the final take was about 10 million oysters, still only two thirds of the quota.

That is estimated to be only two percent of the total biomass.

There is no sign of the bonamia ostreae disease that has destroyed the farmed oyster industry on Stewart Island and in the Marlborough Sounds.

The wild oysters are infected with a different strain of bonamia – exitiosus – which is not harmful to humans and appears to be at low levels this season.

There is reason to be cautious.

Catches have fluctuated wildly over the years and were at 15 million for six years until 2002 when the ever present bonamia struck.

The fishery was closed due to the disease for three years before that.

At that time the estimated mortality of mature oysters was as high as 90 percent – around 1.2 billion shellfish.

There was another mass mortality in the summer of 2013-14, affecting about a third of the population.

Oysters are slow growing in the cold, stormy Strait waters and are five to eight years old when harvested.

Recruitment can be sporadic but has been strong for the past several years.

Barnes, a co-operative of eight companies that includes major players Skeggs, Sanford, United and Independent, handles about two thirds of the catch. Ngai Tahu has the next biggest holding.

The Foodstuffs supermarket chain has a small quota holding of around 30,000 dozen, currently selling for $32 a dozen in Auckland.

The oyster fleet peaked at 23 boats in the 1970s but is now down to 12.

The catch is handled by 20 openers at Barnes, the oldest in his late 70s.

“They are good old soldiers, they turn up every day,” Wright said.

Top operators can open 50 dozen an hour.

The fishery has no exposure to China, the bulk of the catch is consumed domestically, with a small amount sent to Australia.

Meanwhile lobster fishers reliant on the Chinese market – closed due to the coronavirus – have been given limited relief in being allowed to carry forward to next year 10 percent of uncaught quotas.

There is no indication when the lucrative Chinese market might reopen, and the disruption could take months to resolve.

Around 110 operators stand to lose over 290 tonnes of unused entitlements worth $34 million in exports at season’s end on Mar 31.

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