Some say they are the finest oysters in the world. Grown slowly in the cold, clean waters of Foveaux Strait; flushed by strong tides bringing a daily intake of plankton and nutrients; plucked from the depths by oystermen and despatched to waiting palates the length of the country — they are the sea’s most sensuous fruit, and for more than a hundred years strong men have swooned at the thought of them.
On February 28, waking and sleeping tongues involuntarily lick dry lips in anticipation. And in the morning, trumpeted from the media and emblazoned on fishshop windows, the six-month Bluff oyster season begins.
Oysters have been taken commercially from Foveaux Strait since the 1860s. The fishery began at Oyster Cove, Port Adventure, on Stewart Island, the oysters being gathered from shallow beds without the aid of dredges. Coastal cutters were simply beached on the beds at high tide and the oysters shovelled aboard as the tide dropped. The catch was transported in the shell to the mainland, and right from the outset demand was so high that within a few years the beds were exhausted.
New beds discovered off Port William and Halfmoon Bay suffered the same cycle of intense harvesting and depletion until in 1877 a closed season was declared — at the fishermen’s request — and the whole fishery was examined.
Following the re-opening of the fishery in 1879, new, larger beds were discovered in deeper water, and the centre of activity gradually shifted from Stewart Island to Bluff. So too did the oyster’s name, though even today the species is known by at least ten names, including mud oyster, flat oyster, dredge oyster, Foveaux Strait oyster and deep water oyster. The species is actually found throughout New Zealand, but is commonest in the south. Curiously, the Bluff oyster, Ostrea lutaria, is now thought to be the same species as the Chilean oyster Tiostrea chilensis, and is starting to be known by that name.
The first dredges were operated by hand windlasses and drift-towed with the tide. Catches were meagre: three sacks a day compared with 50 or more today. The installation of oil-powered winches improved the catch rate, but it was not until steam vessels towing two dredges were introduced around 1910 that catches approached today’s levels.
A quota system was introduced in 1963, the 12 oyster boats then engaged in the industry being set a limit of 170,000 sacks per season (each sack containing, on average, 800 oysters.) The quota was progressively reduced until in 1970, with 23 boats operating, it was 115,000, or 5000 per boat. (In eating terms, that equates to two dozen oysters for every man, woman and child in the country.)
Catches have remained fairly constant since 1970, with the exception of the excellent 1978/79 seasons, when catches reached 125,000, and the disastrous 1986/87 seasons, when the oyster take was almost halved as a result of an infestation of the parasitic protozoan Bonamia. The effect of Bonamia on oysters is to render them ‘watery’ and black, and on some beds mortality was as high as 90 per cent.
“It was a bit of a scare,” says Ben Calder, manager of Johnson’s Oysters, one of the Bluff processing factories.
The beds are slowly recovering, and although the 1989 quota is still low at 92,000 sacks, Ben says the size and quality of this year’s oysters are very good.
Wake up ! you’re going oystering!” hisses the hotelier’s through the door.
There has to be a good reason to wake someone up at 5am on a winter’s morning in Bluff, but this is certainly one. For the last two days foul weather has kept the oyster fleet bobbing at the wharf, and writer and photographer have been prowling around on land. This is the message we’ve been waiting for.
Outside there is still a biting westerly wandering through the empty streets, but the swell is down and the boats are leaving for the Strait.
It’s a short trip to the new wharf on Bluff’s Island Harbour. In the galley of the Lucy Star the crew is tucking into a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, saveloys and toast. How sailors can work on a bellyful of fried food is more than I can fathom. Perhaps they do it to spite the rest of us, for whom fat and water definitely do not mix.
The hour-plus trip to the beds passes quickly, in pitch darkness only interrupted by the regular sweep of Dog Island light. The east is just lightening when we arrive at skipper John Young’s current patch off Ruapuke Island. A quick scan of the radar gives him his bearings and dredging begins.
Oysters are not distributed uniformly throughout Foveaux Strait. Dense and sparse areas occur within short distances of each other. Although the main commercial beds have been mapped, areas of high oyster concentration are found largely by trial and error, and once on to a good ‘tow’ a skipper guards his patch jealously. Indeed, the test of a good oysterman is his ability to work a productive area consistently, before the catch rate falls to an unacceptable level and it is time to move on.
The point is made forcibly later in the day. The dredges have just gone down when another oyster boat heaves into view. John says nothing, but Paul Pasco, the engineer, gives me a signal that says, “Watch what happens now!”
The intruder — the Argosy moves closer. The vessel is clearly towing across our patch — “mollyhawldng”, as the practice is known. John changes course to take us directly across the Argosy’s towpath.
At the last minute John lifts the dredges and as we pass the two crews flap their arms at each other in birdlike imitation. They both know the rules — and the results. Pull this stunt once too often and it will cost you a mouthful of loose teeth in the pub that night.
The Argosy gets the message and steams off .
Why the aggro, I ask John.
“You can waste a lot of time finding a good tow,“ he explains. “I’ve been working this tow for the last three and a half weeks and taken 750 sacks. There‘s probably a thousand here at least. If I let someone else in it‘ll halve my take and that means I‘ll have to go looking somewhere else.“
John has had 13 years oystering. He started as cook when he was 16 and worked as a deckhand and engineer before getting his skipper’s ticket. During the off-season he fishes for ‘wetfish’, catching whatever there is a market for.
On the Lucy Star the deck is quickly filling up with sacks of oysters. The factory has asked for 50 bags today, and at the rate we are going we will be back at the wharf by afternoon tea.
The dredges themselves are large, oblong steel frames with steel mesh on both sides. The frame is closed at one end by two rope ties, the other has angled ‘bit bars’ top and bottom so whichever way the dredge lands on the sea bed it is ready to scoop up oysters from the substrate.
Both dredges are towed simultaneously from the port side, on steel hawsers of different lengths. The dredges are usually shot while the oyster boat is stemming the tide. The boat then tows at a slow speed in a half circle downtide; then hauls up the dredges as it steams uptide, completing a large circle. The length of dredge wire is critical. Too much and the dredge will haul up large quantities of sand and gravel; too little and it will skim over the sea floor. Today, on the East Bed, we are dredging in 13 fathoms of water.
At the surface the dredge is given two or three short, sharp dips to wash off residual sediment, then swung on board, making a mighty “thwack!“ as it hits the steel framework above the culching platform. Deckhands (two per dredge) untie the ends of the dredge and stand back as a mountain of oysters and oyster shell, along with hermit crabs, brittle stars, whelks and even small octopuses cascade on to the platform.
Culching, the task of sorting out the takeable oysters from the rubbish (culch), has developed almost to an art-form with some deckhands. Ricky Topi uses a rotary technique, both arms revolving like a lawnmower, chucking good oysters into modified metal buckets and the culch down a chute into the tide. But you have to work quickly. No sooner is one pile of material sorted than the next dredge-load is on its way up.
To the rhythmic ‘plonk’ of shellfish on metal, John Young talks about the ups and downs of the fishery. He recalls a few years ago when boats were only catching 30 sacks a day, and it was taking all day to catch them.
“We worked from five to five, six days a week. Next year we went back to the same place and got 100 sacks.”
Bob Street, a marine consultant who has been involved with the Bluff fishery for 20 years, puts the fluctuations down to food supply, and says that the periodic downturns in the oyster fishery coincide with similar reductions in other wildlife such as krill, muttonbirds and salmon.
“When the plankton is in good supply the oysters can reach minimum takeable size in 18 months,” he says. “Under poor conditions it may take three to five years — perhaps longer. Poor feeding means the animals are stressed, and an opportunistic parasite like Bonamia can get in and do a lot of damage.”
No one is talking about Bonamia this year, though. The oysters are coming in thick and fast and fat, and back at the processing plant the openers are really humming. They stand at a concrete bench with a pile of oysters in front of them and a metal bowl to the side. One hand is gloved; the other wields the knife the cut-down, sharpened-up blade of a common household knife embedded in a specially shaped wooden handle.
The process of opening oysters is intriguing to watch. Most openers develop an almost spastic motion, jerking backwards and forwards as they cut the shell muscle, flip back the top valve and flick the whole oyster
into the bowl.
An opener earns $6.60 a bowl (that’s 240 oysters), and a good opener can account for four bowls an hour. Stab, flip, flick; stab, flip, flick … And still the sacks of oyster come in from the trucks.
Once opened, the oysters are sorted, washed and packed for destinations
around the country, but not, surprisingly, overseas. The export of Bluff oysters is prohibited, and it has been right from the early days. The rationale was that this fishery should belong to New Zealanders, and that it shouldn’t go the way of other natural resources, where once exports started the local price skyrocketed,
and eventually the resource was run into the ground.
In the current free market climate, though, this trade restriction has been challenged, and the way is slowly opening for export of Bluff oysters to commence. The customs prohibition is under review, awaiting a recommendation from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF).
At the same time, MAF scientists in Wellington are about to start rearing Bluff oysters under hatchery conditions. The aim is to provide spat (juvenile oysters so named because oystermen thought the adults ‘spat’ out the young) for reseeding the Foveaux Strait beds and for farming operations.
If successful, this research could lead to a situation where there are sufficient oysters to satisfy both the local and export markets.
Oystering has always been important to Bluff. For six months of the year it is a mainstay of the labour force, and many Bluffies have fathers and grandfathers who were in the trade. Oysters are worth at least $10 million a year to Bluff, not counting the spin-offs in tourism.
To keep the tourist coffers ticking over, the Bluff Promotions committee ran a month-long Oyster Festival this year — the second time the idea has been tried. Events included an arm wrestling contest, King of the Oyster Beds speedboat race, tug of war, fishing contest, bikathon and Polynesian Dancer of the Year contest, as well as oyster opening and oyster eating competitions.
Oyster eating competitions are definitely not for those of a delicate constitution. They are, however, a hoot! The contestants (bearing evocative names like ‘Enzyme’, ‘Shark’, ‘The Beast’ and ‘The Bite’) stand behind a chest-high screen on a makeshift stage in the noisiest bar in town. In front of the screen is a plate of oysters and a couple of toothpicks. The oysters must be skewered with a toothpick and consumed, but the plate must not leave the table.
Before eating commences a glass of stout must be downed to “clean the gullet”. This proves to be a challenge in itself for some contestants, who need several attempts before they can bring themselves to drain their glasses.
With the stout out of the way, the starter gives the signal and the race is on. Oysters slip and slide their way into waiting mouths while the roaring crowd urges each contestant on to superhuman efforts.
Like all the competitions, it’s more in fun than anything else, and as contestants stagger from the stage, some heading urgently for the nearest exit, there is a lot of backslapping and all-round good cheer.
As schoolteacher and secretary of Bluff Promotions Jean Mullen tells me, “We’ve got something that’s unique here in Bluff, and we’re proud of it.”
Bluff gold, served in the half shell and savoured by the nation.