THE multitude of bays spanning South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula are well known for producing large quantities of delicious Pacific Oysters.
A hundred years ago, however, the industry looked very different.
Local fishermen were taking up to six million native Australian oysters (Ostrea angasi) from wild stock every year.
As the oyster beds receded, so did any chance for young native oyster larvae to take hold and they were all but wiped out from the region.
Replacing them came the exotic Pacific Oyster farmed in smaller, sustainable leases. Now, as farmed oysters come under threat of disease, the native angasi oyster is starting to make a comeback and may eventually safeguard the industry.
Jill Coates, President of the South Australia Oyster Growers Association.
Jill Coates, President of the South Australia Oyster Growers Association (SAOGA), says that the threat is Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome, or POMS, which was first identified in New South Wales in 2010. A mortality rate of close to 90% means that, left unchecked, it has the potential to devastate any oyster industry it touches.
The disease, however, does not affect the native angasi.
“POMS has caused us to look at other options and in these times when environmentalists - for all the right reasons - aren't supportive of further exotic species being introduced, the angasi, being a native oyster, is the obvious choice,” says Coates.
One of angasi's first supporters was Coffin Bay oyster grower Brendan Guidera of Pristine Oysters.
"In my opinion, a good angasi is the best oyster in Australia," Guidera says.
Guidera has been growing Pacific Oysters in Coffin Bay for more than 13 years. He became involved with angasi in 2007 because, in his words, “it's our local native oyster and we thought we'd have a bit of a crack at it.”
As one of the pioneers of angasi cultivation and husbandry, it seems for Guidera that curiosity, history and taste are as big a driver as new markets and protecting against POMS.
"It's a small part of our business,” he says. “We've sold all we've had ready, but we haven't had the big volumes to test the market. We're only supplying boutique amounts."
The angasi only makes up about 2% of his sales at the moment, though he predicts that will be more like 5% in the coming year as more become available.
Most of this supply goes to high-quality restaurants in Australia.
Guidera shucks an angasi open. It's a flat oyster, almost identical to the European native oyster. Its taste is more mineral than the sweet Pacific variety, and lingers much longer on the palette.
Guidera says that, unlike the Pacific, the taste varies across the oyster itself, and even more so between oysters.
It's a different experience.
Pristine Oysters currently deal mostly in Pacific Oysters (pictured)- making up about 98% of their production. The angasi could make up a more significant portion of their sales if commercial hatcheries start producing more spat.
Jill Coates says that the future of that experience rests on whether the commercial hatcheries begin to breed them – which is happening quicker now that POMS is affecting hatcheries in New South Wales.
Strict quarantines have kept South Australia untouched by POMS and has led to organisations like SAOGA contacting PIRSA and SARDI, South Australia's agriculture and aquaculture research organisations, to ask them to start hatcheries to help push the revival of the angasi.
She's confident that will happen, since SARDI has allowed most growers to add the native oyster to their leases.
“Now we have about two thirds of the industry with the angasi endorsement on their licenses. That means we have a critical mass which should give confidence to the commercial hatcheries to produce the spat we need,” Coates explains.
While they're still reliant on SARDI, one of Australia's largest hatcheries has started to produce angasi spat, and that should increase the level of quality being produced too.
The two challenges facing the industry right now are the difficulty of growing the native oysters, which typically take twice as long to reach market size as the Pacific, and building the markets and customer awareness to sustain the product.
Brendan Guidera of Pristine Oysters shucking an angasi oyster.
“You'd be mad to go in boots and all because at present it takes twice as long to get them to saleable size and condition,” Guidera says.
The great hope of the angasi market is Europe.
Up until the 1970s, nearly all of France's production was the European native oyster - which was wiped out by an introduced disease.
The native oyster now fetches between three to five times as much on the French marketplace than the Pacific Oyster.
“The French eat about five times as many oysters as we do. They especially like the flat oyster and our oysters are at their prime when France's are at their worst. We have already sent some angasi oysters to France," says Guidera.
He says POMS may force hatcheries to put more effort into refining growing techniques for the native oyster.
“As it is, you put your time and effort in to your big numbers and money making stock, and when you get a bit of time you'll deal with the angasi,” Guidera says. “If the hatcheries were behind it there would be a good chance that eventually they would be a viable option.”
Jill Coates of SAOGA thinks that if there's any industry that will work out the problems, it's the oyster industry.
“We're not hugely competitive. We're collaborative. We pioneered this industry and we had to come together and share - putting sticks and bags in the water and oysters and trying to figure out whether they grew,” she says.
“That's where the innovation has come from, industry itself. I think there are so many consumers out there who are ready for a different experience. We'll be doing our part to show the benefits of eating an angasi oyster.”