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Just enough Bluffies to kick-start the season

Friday 8 March 2019

The exclusive member only Wellington Club was this week offering one Bluff oyster for $20.

However, the first of the season’s delicacy did come with a glass of champagne.

The high price and the special event reflect the excitement the famed Foveaux Strait wild oysters generate.

And with the proposed catch well down this year, Bluffies will be in even higher than usual demand.

The license holders have agreed to limit the catch to 7.5 million oysters, just half the Total Allowable Commercial Catch of 15 million.

Last year was also fished conservatively, with about 10 million oysters landed on the same TACC.

The owners of the 12 vessels fishing the wild Strait waters will assess the state of the fishery at the end of the month and push the catch towards a 10 million total if warranted.

An Auckland restaurateur contacted Barnes Oysters general manager Graeme Wright last week ahead of the March 1 opening to order 200 dozen.

He planned to fly down to Invercargill with a group of 30.

Wright told him no deal.

He did not want to feature on the front page of the Southland Times for supplying Aucklanders before locals.

“I’d get my testicles kicked.

“Southlanders are very passionate about their oysters.”

In any event, the weather was too rough, with a 40-knot westerly.

It was not until Sunday that the fishing began in earnest and the Barnes factory in Invercargill’s Spey Street began opening on Monday.

Barnes is a co-operative of eight companies that includes major players Skeggs, Sanford, United and Independent.

Bluff-based Urwin’s has just sold its oyster quota to Skeggs and its rock lobster and finfish holdings remain in play.

Barnes has about 65 percent of the catch.

Ngai Tahu Seafoods is the next largest player.

The Foodstuffs supermarket chain also has a small holding.

Despite the caution being shown, Wright is optimistic about the state of the industry, if not the world’s biggest wild flat oyster fishery then certainly its roughest.

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 is at low levels this season.

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

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

That halved the catch for five years before it slowly built back up until 2014 when the disease caused as much as 30 percent mortality.

Oysters are slow growing in the cold Strait waters and are around nine years old when harvested.

Recruitment is sporadic but has been strong for the past two years.

The baby oysters, or “wings”, often attach to mature oysters, which have to be returned to the sea, but that is a good problem to have.

Like spawning, the weather can be equally fickle.

Last year it blew so hard in April the boats could only get out on six days.

“They know it’s a nice day when I’m aboard,” Wright said.

“Graeme doesn’t do rough days.”

As for the price, it has been held locally at $25 a dozen.

The season ends on August 31 but most of the boats have tied up by then.

The highlight of the season is the Bluff oyster festival on May 25, which has again sold out.

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