Dredging for Bluff oyster gold in Foveaux Strait

13 March / Stuff

The Bluff oyster is a much sought after delicacy of the south. Videographer Kavinda Herath and Southland Times editor Ché Baker jumped onboard the Daphne Kay earlier this week to observe the boat’s crew at work.

What person in their right mind gets up to start work between 1am and 2am? During March and April, many alarms are ringing that early in the morning in Bluff, as the almost dozen oyster boats are prepped to leave the harbour for the 1 hour and 15-minute journey to the wild oyster beds in Foveaux Strait, between Bluff and Stewart Island.

Many years ago, the number of boats heading out was much greater. The industry, like many others, has been plagued with issues during the years.

Last year, the oysters were the poorest quality Barnes Oysters manager Graeme Wright had seen in his 26 years in the industry. The oysters were small. Drought in the region had not helped the situation.

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic halted processing, with staff becoming sick with the illness, and then staff on the boats affected. And a few years earlier the oyster parasite Bonamia ostreae was discovered at two farms, a different strain to that found at the wild oyster fishery, at Big Glory Bay at Stewart Island. Bonamia exitiosa, has been present in the wild populations in Foveaux Strait since the early 1960s. It wiped out more than 1.5 billion oysters - about 95 per cent of the total population - in 2001 and 2002. The ebbs and flows of the oyster business.

Dredge oysters can live for eight years or more and reach harvest width of 58 millimetres in four to six years.

Just before 2am on Wednesday, oyster boat Daphne Kay left its dock at South Port. The crew is five family members. Three brothers, a brother-in-law, and a son. Ricky Ryan is the skipper, with brothers Lynn, Jason, brother-in-law Karl and Ricky’s son Ethan making up the oystermen crew of five. Some of the brothers have been involved in oystering for 44 years. Ethan, trained to be a heat pump installer and worked in refrigeration, but returned to the boat and is now in his second season. He says he actually regrets not getting into the family business earlier. Ricky says the working hours keep him the business. What? 1am starts?

The Daphne Kay, one of the first to leave in the mornings of oyster season, heads out early, so the crew can work out of the sunlight. Working in the heat, which could be 20C, is uncomfortable. His crew like the hours. Ricky says last year, between oyster season and trawling for quotas in the off season, he worked 91 days. One of the longest stints without a day off was 14 days. He now lives in Bannockburn, for better weather, and returns to Bluff to stay with family during the season.

As the Daphne Kay makes its way out of the Bluff harbour and approaches Stirling Point, the music of Magic Talk plays gently over the radio. Some of the crew are resting in the sleeping quarters. Karl, one of the brothers involved in the season for 44 years, is awake. He says he doesn’t need much sleep – five hours can be enough. “The younger people like their sleep,” he says.

When asked if, being family, the crew squabble much, he replied in the negative. As long as everyone is doing their jobs, there’s no reason to argue. The rule is “the skipper is god”. Once they arrived at the beds, it’s straight into it. The dredge is dropped and about 15 minutes trawling begins. It’s pulled up, and the first haul is dumped onto the boards of the boat to be sorted through. The oysters are hidden in the pile of shells and seabed debris. The men work quietly, but hard and fast. Every so often they strike an oyster. Filling a tub takes time and effort.

It’s 4.30am, the radio is turned up. Stuck in the Middle with You is playing as the lights of the eight other boats in the water shine out. By 5am, 10 tubs, each with 36 dozen oysters, are full. This is not easy work. Watching close-up, it makes sense why a dozen raw Bluff oysters can fetch up to $39.99. The sun rises to a morning sky full of striking blues and the pile of full tubs begins to steadily grow.

Reports that one of the other crews stayed in Bluff, not keen on the weather forecast, mean that the crew stay longer than planned. A few more tubs are filled. About 8.30am the last pile is pulled and sorted. The boat is washed down and the crew, looking surprisingly refreshed and awake after a full shift of work, smile as they put the jug on. “What’d you think,” they ask. “It’s a bit like digging for gold, aye,” Karl says.

The boat heads back to Bluff, with a bit more swell than at 2am it seems, under the blanket of sun and blue sky. A successful morning. Now to get up at 1am to do it again tomorrow.

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