Tasmania’s oyster industry faces a tough road ahead. Tests confirmed the presence of Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS) in the south of the state on January 27, and current conservative statistics suggest infection across 50 per cent of the state’s oyster production, according to Jon Poke, director of Estuarine Oyster Company and general manager of Bouldans Bay Oysters.
Bruce Zippel, president of Oysters Australia confirmed, “There will definitely be price rises”, but that the exact number is “very difficult to say” considering the ongoing situation. He suggested that a price rise of "10–20 per cent would be likely".
Zippel suggests that a third of Tasmania's oyster production goes to NSW, "at least in excess of one million dozen oysters."
“Tasmania is traditionally a major supplier through the peak Christmas period in the market, and also the Easter period,” says Poke. “It’s going to have a major impact at those two times.”
While this is the first time the disease has been found in Tasmania, this is not the first time the disease has decimated a sector of the Australian Pacific oyster industry.
Zippel says the disease was first identified in France around 2008, and appeared in New Zealand later in 2010, before approaching Australia later the same year. It was detected in the Georges River and Port Jackson in NSW in 2011, and in January 2013 it was confirmed in the Hawkesbury River. With significant fisheries along the waterways, the ripple effects were monumental.
“The disease, once first detected, travelled 28 kilometres in three days, killing nearly every oyster in its path,” says Neil Stump, acting EO at Tasmanian Oyster Industry. The ABC reported it killed 10 million juvenile oysters worth 6 million dollars in 2013. “That’s what we’re starting to see on the farms [in Tasmania],” Stump says.
In response to the disease’s impact in NSW, the Australian Seafood Industries began actively working on a selective breeding program. Its aim, according to its mission statement, is to better respond to future attacks and to “achieve POMS resistance of at least 70 per cent post spat [young oyster] survival”.
“They believed they would have a strain response to the virus by 2018,” says Zippel. “So the industry has been preparing for this for some time. Unfortunately, the virus hit two years too early in Tasmania.”
How the disease got to Tasmania remains unclear.
“There has been some comment in the media about the East Australian Current, but this is not the common consensus among industry people,” says Zippel. “It’s more likely to have been carried, in my opinion, by small boats, yachts or fishing vessels travelling between the NSW and Tasmania."
According to an industry source, Wild Pacific oysters in the Derwent River in Tasmania are now infected. It’s a location where Sydney to Hobart yachts were moored.
“The Pacific oyster is quite happy to attach to hulls. It’s definitely possible – and this is something that has always concerned us about the Sydney to Hobart race – the virus may have attached itself to an oyster that attached to a hull in NSW that carried the virus to the Lower Pittwater.”
According to Stump, it doesn’t matter.
“Once the disease is here, it doesn’t matter how it got here. It’s here, and it’s having an impact on the industry, and that’s what we’re trying to deal with.”
Seven locations have been confirmed as infected, Poke says: first in Lower Pittwater, and then successively in Upper Pittwater, Pipeclay Lagoon, Blackman Bay, Dunalley Bay, Great Bay on Bruny Island and, as of Friday morning, Little Swanport. According to Poke, the northern regions of the state currently remain unaffected.
“We’ve got sampling going on to establish the spread and the likely areas that will be affected,” Poke says. “Growers from the regions that remain unaffected so far can’t rest easy. It could spread through the whole state.”
Shane Buckley, owner of Wapengo Rocks oyster farm in Bermagui, says that the chain of events proves the importance of maintaining clean waterways.
“There’s got to be so much work done to ensure that the water in small estuaries up and down the coast is preserved,” says Buckley. “I can’t imagine what these guys are going through right now – waiting to see if they have a business or not. The whole system is an ecoysystem; every little critter out there influences what goes on. We’ve got to stay on top of it."
After an industry meeting on Friday, Poke says the government response is still unclear.
“The whole situation is going to take some time to play out, so the industry will be in negotiations with the government for assistance,” he says. “It’s just too early to say what shape it will take.”
The virus does not affect humans and it is still too early to determine exactly how the outbreak will affect the price or accessibility of oysters. South Australian Pacific oysters have been given the all clear.
The biggest question remains how, and if, oyster farmers – considering the 18-months to two-year cycle for oyster production – will be able to get back on their feet.
“For producers to really get back on their feet, it’s going to be at least a couple of years down the track,” says Zippel. “This is not only affecting this year’s production; it’s also affecting next year’s production and the year after that.”