Oyster lovers get their orders in

27 February / Otago Daily Times / Allison Beckham

It is three days out from the start of the 2015 Bluff oyster season and Graeme Wright’s phone is ringing red hot.

‘‘That was an order for 100 dozen on opening day, and that’s just for one little fish and chip shop in Balclutha,’’ he says.

Out the back at Barnes Wild Bluff Oysters in Invercargill - the largest of Southland’s three oyster processing plants - staff are giving the place a thorough scrub from top to bottom.

Come Sunday, 30 openers and another 17 carriers, counters and packers will be frantically processing an estimated 2500 dozen of the Foveaux Strait delicacies, trying to keep up with the almost insatiable demand from restaurateurs, seafood retailers and members of the public.

Provided there is no storm, the 11 boats in the Bluff oyster fleet will head out early on Sunday.

The weather was looking good, with a fine day and blustery northerly winds forecast, MetService meteorologist John Law said. Rain was forecast for Monday, but winds were expected to be light.

Mr Wright, Barnes’ general manager and spokesman for the Bluff Oyster Management Company, said he expected its first oysters to be on sale about 2pm, retailing at $23 a dozen.

Customers usually began queuing outside the shop door several hours earlier, some driving from Queenstown, Dunedin and all over Southland for their annual first-day fix, he said.

‘‘One Queenstown restaurateur has told me he is planning to hire a helicopter and fly down so he can have oysters on the menu on Sunday evening.’‘

If the weather is kind, more than 13 million oysters could be harvested during the six-month season, with Barnes processing about 70% of them.

Harbour Fish manager Aaron Cooper, of Dunedin, is once again planning a road trip south to ensure he has oysters for his customers.

If the boats go out on Sunday, he will be on the road at 5am, heading straight to Bluff in the hope of buying up to 500 dozen and said they would be sold ‘‘as soon as I can get them to the shop’‘.

The Foveaux Strait oyster beds, which cover about 150sq km, have been affected by the oyster parasite bonamia for decades.

Mr Wright said billions of adult oysters had died, although those which remained were safe to harvest and eat.

Harvesting was stopped during the 1990s to allow the beds to rebuild, and the oysters were ‘‘knocked’’ again in 2001 and 2002, he said.

Since then, the industry had taken a ‘‘cautionary approach’‘, voluntarily reducing catches to ensure the continued viability of the beds.

Although the maximum allowable annual harvest was 14.95 million oysters, 13.2 million were taken last year and Mr Wright said he expected the harvest to be about the same this year.

A recent pre-season survey of the beds showed the oysters were in good health, he said.

‘‘It’s looking OK. There’s nothing ugly out there. We are very fortunate, as bonamia has decimated virtually every flat oyster bed in the world.’‘

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