The end of farmed oysters off Stewart Island as MPI confirms it's unsustainable
Bluff oysters will likely never again be farmed off Stewart Island.
Oyster lovers need not panic just yet – the wild oyster fishery remains viable for now – but information released to Stuff on Wednesday says the farming of oysters in Big Glory Bay is finished.
"All evidence points towards farming of flat oysters with Bonamia ostreae in the environment not being sustainable," said Geoff Gwyn, Ministry for Primary Industries director of readiness and response.
Farmers say the declaration will result in job cuts and massive financial losses for at least three companies operating from the bay in Stewart Island.
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The announcement comes a day after officials said they were a third of the way through removing infected oysters from farms in both Southland and Marlborough, upsetting industry representatives with its slow progress.
The ministry now say the removal of oysters infected with the parasite will be complete by October.
"Any dense populations of oysters, such as an oyster farm, will act as a ground for amplifying Bonamia particles and increase the infection pressure and the risk to the wild flat oyster fishery," Gwyn said.
The parasite was first detected on May 24 among oyster farms in Stewart Island's Big Glory Bay, where three major companies ran several dozen farms.
Rodney Clark said he pioneered the farming of oysters in Stewart Island more than a decade ago.
On Wednesday, Clark said his business, New Zealand Bluff Oyster Company "was finished".
"I've put 14 years of my life into this, so you can imagine how I feel," Clark said.
Following the Bonamia ostreae outbreak, Clark estimated more than 10 million oysters were lost.
Pulling the oysters from the sea, Clark said he and his staff had to "emotionally switch off".
"On the last day, everybody, all my staff, we all burst into tears. Even some of the fishery officers had tears coming down their face," Clark said.
Clark said he was told farming oysters was not possible but he and his team produced large numbers of above-average sized oysters.
"We knew we had done something pretty special and they could see just the sheer scale of what we'd achieved."
Since the last of his cages were pulled from Big Glory Bay, Clark said he was still grieving the loss of his business and his staff.
"All of our staff have been let go, about seven people. We've shut our hatchery, we've closed everything down. Everything was purpose built," Clark said.
"We're in the process of dismantling everything and working our way through what we will do in the future but for now we are finished."
Eade, Ericson and Cave Ltd (EEC) ran a dozen farms in Big Glory Bay and despite coming up clear of bonamia on all tests, more than 4 million oysters were destroyed, co-owner Helen Cave said.
"Of the 12 farms we are involved with, there were no positive tests for bonamia," Cave said.
Most of EEC's mussels were removed because oysters were being grown on the same lines, she said, and job losses were expected.
"Our mussel processing factory [in Christchurch], which employs 50 people, will be considerably reduced," Cave said.
At least 20 people would lose their jobs at the factory, she said, as well as an unknown number locally.
EEC filed a compensation claim with the ministry for losses incurred through the cull, which Cave said had been "partially acknowledged".
"We're looking at more legal advice to help us with that side of things," Cave said.
Sanford was the third big player in Big Glory Bay oyster farming and a spokeswoman said the outbreak had "a big impact on our teams in Bluff and Stewart Island".
She said the extraction of oysters from the area had been "emotionally painful and difficult" for their staff.
Exact numbers of removed oysters were unavailable, Gywn said, as they were "subject to compensation claims and commercial sensitivity".
Gwyn said the ministry had received three compensation claims so far and had a "dedicated compensation team" working with farmers on claims relating to bonamia.
Any business that experienced a financial loss because of ministry directions given under the Biosecurity Act may be eligible for compensation, Gwyn said.
Bluff Oyster Management Company operations manager Graeme Wright said the decision was "clearly devastating" for farmers, but it was "good news" for oysters as a whole.
"Based on the scientific information we've been provided, that is the logical approach," Wright said.
"We invest heavily in ensuring the sustainability of the wild fishery and that's another tick in the box to sustain that."