Big dry hits river

MENTION drought and thoughts tend to turn to farmers struggling on the land but on the South Coast we should spare a thought for the farmers who work the water too.

Despite the fact their farms are located in the local rivers oyster farmers are struggling with the impact of drought.

Without rain their businesses, much like farmers on the land, would not be viable.

Brian and Barry Allen have spent more than 40 years growing what is one of the South Coast’s largest oyster enterprises.

They farm 56 hectares of the Shoalhaven estuary’s 149 hectares.

As with many of the region’s land-based farms they are continuing a family farming tradition that dates back a number of generations.

Their family’s name first appeared in relation to oyster farming at Greenwell Point in the 1920s.

Brian Allen said back then his great grandfather would ask local river fishermen to gather oyster spat off the mangroves. 

“He would then put it on the coastal steamer to Sydney,” Mr Allen said.

“By the late 1940s my family had moved out of the Georges River in Sydney and had set up in Greenwell Point,” he said.

Things are very different now to those early days and the Allen brothers have pioneered methods to improve oyster growth and farming methods that opened up previously unusable areas.

However one thing remains unchanged – no rain means no oysters.

“This rain we’ve had lately does nothing for us. This would just be soaking into the ground,” he said.

“Oysters need about 30 to 50mm of rain. We need a flush of fresh water down the river to make the oysters spawn. 

“It’s that rain that triggers them off.

“If they spawn early it means they come back into condition before winter hits. If they’re in good condition it can carry them through.

“We need that good rain in May and July to help prevent winter mortality which hits us in drought conditions.”

The lack of rain over the past few months has become evident to the local oyster farmers through changes in the river.

“We are seeing density or salinity levels have risen in the river. We have octopuses coming in, cunje growing and different seaweeds,” he said.

“We do have backup where we can buy from hatcheries. 

“To help meet demand we buy about 250,000 young sterile Pacifics twice a year.

“We put them in nursery tanks. They grow fast we can sell them in 12 to 18 months, unlike Sydney rocks that take about three years.

“It’s a way to create a quicker cash flow.”

Mr Allen said oyster farmers faced mounting costs and were required to meet stringent quality controls.

“We’ve gone from having to pay one lease fee to needing to come up with money to pay about seven fees and keep numerous licences current.

“Shoalhaven oyster farmers and Shoalhaven City Council pay about $60,000 toward a quality assurance program.

“These days you are either in this industry all the way or you’re out – there are no half measures.”

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