A question of compensation

Bluff oysters are a truly southern delicacy, sought after countrywide by New Zealanders fond of the salty taste of the sea.

However, the latest developments for Big Glory Bay Stewart Island marine farmers is causing massive concern within the industry. Questions are being asked about the actions and timeliness of the Ministry for Primary Industries.

MPI has been labelled incompetent after ignoring international scientific advice designed to prevent the spread of a lethal parasite threatening the Bluff oyster industry.

The Bonamia ostreae parasite has been found at Big Glory Bay oyster farms and a mass cull of the oysters is planned. While not harmful to humans, the parasite can be fatal to flat oysters and MPI says it is urgently working to remove all stocks from the bay.

MPI also says it is working with Marlborough marine farms to remove all flat oyster stocks to remove disease pressure in New Zealand. Flat oysters are the same species as the renowned Bluff oysters.

Marine farmers in Stewart Island are backing a plan to lift thousands of tonnes of contaminated oysters — in return for millions of dollars of compensation — to protect the Bluff oyster industry.

This situation can only be described as a major setback for an industry employing thousands of people and an industry which has faced a killer disease in the past.

Another strain of bonamia caused major disruption to the fishery between 1985-93 and from 2000-05. Since 2006, oyster mortality from bonamia has been relatively low and, until now, the oyster fishery has been rebuilding.

A 2010 report from NIWA said oyster densities increased at most sites, with densities at some sites more than doubling from the previous year. However, bonamia was then still causing problems in other areas with oyster densities decreasing there. Survey results were consistent with the opinions of oyster kippers involved in the survey.

During the the major disruptions in the 1985-93 period, the Bluff oyster beds were closed for some seasons and there were major concerns about the future of the vital Southland fishery.

Now, it seems urgent action is required to save the beds from further harm.

MPI plans to start lifting the contaminated oysters from early next week. The timeframe to complete the work is not yet known, as it represents a significant logistical challenge.

Graeme Wright, of the Bluff Oyster Management Company, says it is most likely to be the end of flat oyster farming in Big Glory Bay. Scientific evidence overseas suggests the parasite returns whenever the oyster farmers do, even a decade later.

While it is harsh for the flat oyster farmers, Mr Wright says his job is to save the Foveaux fishery.

A wider issue needs to be considered in New Zealand — the sustainability of natural fisheries against the increasing rise of farmed products.

New Zealand does sell its produce overseas and the clean green image is part and parcel of the marketing process. But how clean are the products that are farmed? 

In Ireland and Scandinavia, there are rising concerns about the toxicity of farmed salmon, for instance.

The Big Glory Bay oyster farmers are going to be compensated for their loss of income from their possibly contaminated oysters. Whether those farmers needed to take more care with their own product needs to be resolved before compensation is paid.

It appears to be a problem which is unlikely to go away. The Bonamia ostreae parasite was first found in the Marlborough Sounds in 2015, but MPI failed to act on international scientific evidence received in mid-2015 recommending removing all infected oysters to minimise the risk of it spreading.

The decision to lift contaminated oysters in Marlborough — and those in Stewart Island — should have happened two years ago.

Care must be taken to not damage New Zealand’s natural environment by over farming fish stocks. And compensation should only be paid where it can be shown all possible care during the farming process.

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