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Oyster farms were banking on a better 2021, instead they got rain on top of a 'trifecta of pain'

By Keira Proust and Keely Johnson, Thursday January 21, 2021 - 08:31 EDT
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Many estuaries had to close intermittently throughout the past year due to a variety of factors. - ABC

After a year of ashy water, floods and COVID-19 lockdowns, oyster farmers across the state were looking forward to a bumper summer season.

But recent rainfall along the New South Wales coast could be the final blow for many farmers ? particularly those on the Macleay River.

Oyster farmer David Smith said more wet weather would herald another challenging year.

"We've got a trifecta of pain for oyster farmers on the Macleay at the moment," he said.

"Now we have the rain back, it's just creating a perfect scene for a repeat of 2020, which everyone knows was a horrible year."

Mr Smith said he had lost roughly $500,000 worth of oysters due to several devastating events that hit the region in 2020.

"There are three-quarters of a million [dead] oysters on the [river] bank ? that's $400,000 worth of oysters," he said.

"We're looking at half a million dollars of income we can't replace."

The combination of bushfires and heavy rain led to an outbreak of QX, a disease that wipes out Sydney rock oysters.

"We're crossing our fingers and toes that we don't get another QX outbreak," Mr Smith said.

An oyster boom

Batemans Bay's Clyde River was one of the only estuaries to harvest throughout the summer period without major interruptions from the rain, and many local farmers are experiencing a spike in demand.

Oyster Shed director Gregory Norris said demand for local seafood was booming amid an increase in domestic tourism.

"We've seen increases up to 159 per cent this year in demand," he said.

Fellow Oyster Shed director Enola Rossiter said while the economic boost was a welcome change, the combination of estuary closures and more tourists was putting workers under pressure.

"We feel like we're on the back foot all the time," she said.

"It's been every week since June that we have been this busy, so actually a full river closure ? speaking personally, I would not mind a break."

Climate concern

Warwick Anderson, the non-executive director of Australia's Oyster Coast, said while the future for oyster farmers was hopeful there were concerns that climate change would pose further risks for the industry.

"Are we going to get plagues of starfish? Are we going to get different viruses?" he said.

"There's a lot of unknowns."

Farmers are concerned a warming climate could bring more diseases and pests into the ecosystem, as well as increasing the frequency of extreme weather events.

But Ms Rossiter said she did not feel pessimistic, despite the challenges.

"There is that worry for the future," she said.

"But overall I am optimistic for our industry."


© ABC 2021

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