Oyster Men of the Clyde
The Sydney Rock Oyster, as farmed on the pristine Clyde River, is growing in reputation.
The Clyde River (Bhundoo to the Aborigines) is one of the last undammed rivers on the east coast. The river is certainly one of the least polluted, protected by national parks with a minimum of riverside farming and few populated areas. In the oyster growing zones, the river is routinely 70% saltwater and 30% fresh water, considered ideal.
In volume terms only Brisbane Waters, the Hawkesbury River and Wallis Lake exceed Clyde River’s oyster output. Over 750,000 dozen oysters are harvested per annum from the 20-odd Clyde River leases, accounting for 11% of the State’s production.
So much for the stats, but what about the star of the show; this little filter-feeding mollusc that has such a worldwide reputation?
Firstly, while the oyster may raise the romantic mood of the evening, that flush of expectation as you leave the restaurant will have more to do with your stunning partner or your choice of wine. Although the little critter has no aphrodisiac powers, the oyster does have an eventful reproductive life of its own, producing almost 1 million larvae. The male oyster, should the occasion suit, is hermaphroditic.
Above: Bernie Connoll
Culinary aficionados claim to be able to identify the product of various Sydney Rock Oyster growing regions by taste. Even in the Clyde River itself, apparently the flesh can taste a little more “peppery” from downriver leases than from further upriver.
A healthy river system goes hand-in-shucking glove with strong oyster growth. A healthy oyster needs a healthy river. Oysters are considered the canaries of a river system and if an oyster is crook, so too is the river.
The local oyster industry has thankfully been largely spared the disease ravages that more regularly impact on other growing areas. QX disease and various imported viruses have been debilitating elsewhere but only occasionally has our river turned on the oyster industry.
External factors are another matter, which I will return to shortly.
Above: Kevin McAsh
If you have been fortunate enough to drift idly downstream from Nelligen in a small dingy with the usual limp fishing line, you would have noticed (apart from the exceptional scenery) hectares of tar blackened racking lining both banks.
These oyster leases have been worked for over 150 years by a dozen or more families, many of who are still represented by later generations. Names such as Wray, Ralston, Innes, O’Brien, Thors, Terry, Elliot, Pashalidis, Connell, Evans, Felleti and McAsh. Apologies to those I haven’t mentioned.
Rack and rail oyster farming has recently given way to more modern technology including polypropylene mesh baskets suspended below the water line.
Almost under the shadow of our Bridge is Budd Island. It is here that the engine room of Batemans Bay’s second largest industry kicks into high gear.
Access to the island and Latta Point opposite can be organised and is worth the effort. Enquire at Bernies, Beach Road, Batehaven.
The proud men and women of Batemans Bay’s oyster growing community are very protective of the river from which they earn their living. A healthy and clean Clyde River is part of what defines our town as well as being a necessary co-requisite for a strong oyster industry.
Our growers are determined to protect the waterway by becoming environmental stewards and to undertake and promote awareness of water quality, biodiversity values and to improve the condition of ecological sensitive areas adjacent to Budd Island.
Local oysterman Kevin McAshe is Oyster Committee Chairman on the NSW Farmers Association. Kevin and other Clyde River growers have initiated an Environmental Management System with the support of the Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority. The aim is to adopt production methods that generate less waste, improve water quality and increase yields.
March 2011 was a tough month for our oyster growers.
While we watched with horror the news broadcasts of the catastrophic Japanese earthquake and tsunami, pockets of water-born energy systematically worked outwards towards other parts of the Pacific.
Bernie Connell described to me how several powerful pulses of water-surge entered the Clyde River twelve hours after the quake, coinciding with a high tide. Batemans Bay’s mini-tsunami resulted in high level stock losses and infrastructure damage similar to that caused by the Chilean 9.5 magnitude earthquake of 1960.
This shock of water-surge also triggered significant river silt disturbance, exacerbated almost immediately by heavy rainfall and unusually high tides. It took until last week before the silt finally settled and normal salinity levels returned.
Right now would be a good time to suggest that you plan this weekend to share a plate of local oysters with your partner at either one of our many restaurants or at home.
And if at some stage you spot one of our oyster growers on the river, offer a small wave. Very special people.
This extract is republished with kind permission from: Our town our people : Batemans Bay : a tribute to the men and women who have shaped our town. volume 1 by Kim Odgers. 201 pages : illustrations (some colour), portraits (some colour) ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780646586199