The oyster industry has long played an important role in regional coastal communities. Locally, oyster sales from Tuross Lake and Wagonga Inlet at Narooma are worth around $3m annually, and the industry is well and truly ingrained in the fabric of these coastal areas.
Operating in sensitive estuarine waters, oyster farmers are often the first to raise the alarm to pollution and disturbances, and are strong advocates for environmental protection. This important role that oyster farmers play has been highlighted in a recent review of industry activity.
The 2015 review, undertaken by OceanWatch Australia, tracked the performance of oyster farming businesses operating in Tuross Lake and Wagonga Inlet against an environmental action plan developed in 2012.
The action plan, part of an Environmental Management System (EMS), identified improvements that oyster farmers could make to their own operations, as well as opportunities to get involved in the management of the surrounding catchment.
Through the review it was revealed that in the last three years, Tuross Lake and Wagonga Inlet oyster farmers had collectively removed around 135 tonnes of old oyster infrastructure, a weight equivalent to five humpback whales.
Concurrently, many leases have been brought back into production using modern environmentally friendly and recyclable growing systems, ensuring seafood lovers have access to quality local oysters. Notably, many farmers have adapted their production systems to minimise shading of the seabed.
This has encouraged the growth of healthy seagrass which is an important habitat for many juvenile fish. Wagonga Inlet in particular is renowned for its extensive Posidonia australis beds, a unique and relatively rare seagrass species in NSW.
“We’ve all done a lot of hard work over the years” said Narooma oyster farmer David Maidment. “We’ve moved away from old farming techniques, and are now using methods and materials considered best practice in the industry. The estuary has never been better.”
In addition to improving their own practices, farmers have also partnered with landholders to improve the surrounding area. Projects have included fencing off cattle from creeks and tree-planting on the banks of the estuary. They have also been active advising council and other natural resource management organisations on environmental initiatives and priorities.
Local oyster farmers have also taken the opportunity to engage with locals by undertaking educational community tours of the estuary. As David attests: “Such events give people the opportunity to learn how oysters are grown, and builds an appreciation of the importance of water quality – not only to grow oysters, but for the health of the whole ecosystem.”
In recognition of their strong environmental credentials and a rigorous water quality monitoring program, in 2015 Wagonga Inlet was granted approval to export oysters. This project is supported by South East Local Land Services, Australia’s Oyster Coast and OceanWatch Australia through funding from Australian and NSW governments.