Oyster farming in the Port Macquarie-Hastings

Busy harvest: Sydney Rock Oysters are grown by oyster farmers all along the Mid North Coast region.
Busy harvest: Sydney Rock Oysters are grown by oyster farmers all along the Mid North Coast region.

Farmer Brandon Armstrong says there is never a dull moment in the oyster industry.

“It’s quite easy to slip behind in an area where you are usually understaffed and the pressure is there to maintain and keep a good quality product,” he said. 

Armstrong Oysters are grown in the waters of the Camden Haven River and the farm is operated by brothers Brandon and Jason Armstrong.

Farmers on the Mid North Coast are noting that 2016/17 was a good year for the harvest of oysters, particularly as it was quite a dry winter. 

Floods, Brandon said can impact negatively on the production of oysters. 

There has been high demand for the rock oysters, particularly as oyster farming in Tasmania had been hit hard by a disease called Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS). 

“It’s left a $30 million gap in the industry,” Brandon said. 

The damage to oysters in Tasmania, Brandon said was a good opportunity for the rock oyster industry to step up and become more professional to sell the product. 

David Tunstead is a sixth generation oyster farmer in Port Macquarie. 

He said there had been significant improvements to the industry over the last 30 years. 

Mr Tunstead noted that there had been improvements to growing methods and most farmers were now using slats to grow oysters, rather than sticks. 

Oysters, Mr Tunstead describes as the ‘canaries of the water’  as healthy oysters reflect healthy estuaries. 

Crown Oysters is owned by couple Robert and Cisca van Breenen and they said it has been a really good start to 2017. 

Mrs van Breenen said the oysters had positive growth over winter, which was a relatively dry one. 

Good management, Mrs van Breenen said is a crucial factor to effective farming. 

The couple began farming in 2004 and they are now in their 13th season. 

Mrs van Breenen said that oysters which are produced further inland tend to be creamier, due to a warmer climate while oysters farmed near the sea can be saltier in taste. 

There are people who can tell the difference between different locations and estuaries through taste. 

“That’s what is unique about the rock industry in that even though people can eat the same type of oysters, different flavours can come through,” Brandon Armstrong said. 

Recently Armstrong Oysters has linked with other farms in the region including those who operate on the Hastings to give them a production advantage through working together. 

“Before everyone was sort of running their own race,” Brandon said. 

“Now we’re coordinating the supply ourselves a bit which is improving productivity.” 

Brandon said that oyster farming is inherently difficult. 

“River conditions and water quality is the biggest impact,” he said. 

The farm has been impacted by some very wet seasons in the past and the workers have to make the most of the weather when there is a dry patch. 

Armstrong Oysters has equipment to make operations more efficient, including a grader which sorts the oyster by size. 

“It gives us the opportunity to produce more oysters and get them out quicker,” Brandon said. 

The complete process of farming mature oysters takes three years. 

Mature oysters spawn offspring around April and the eggs are used for the following season’s crop. 

Plastic slats are put out through the period of November through to April so that the offspring can latch onto the surface.

Brandon said there are about 10 stages that the oysters undergo before they mature at three years old. 

He said that January is a busy time for the farm as at the same time they are harvesting their mature oysters, they also have to care for their juvenile stocks. 

While Sydney Rock Oysters are not known for producing pearls, the brothers said that they have encountered some small pearls at times. 

“Nothing of any quality that can be sold off,” Brandon said.