A great half-day boat trip gave us a really great tour of the bay. Sea lions, dolphins, pelicans and many different types of birds were spotted all around the bays.
We stopped at one of the numerous oyster leases in the bay to learn about the industry. It takes up to 18 months to grow an oyster to ‘plate’ size – that is, the size that restaurants want to buy for their customers. The ‘spat’ are bought in and placed in cylindrical mesh cages that are strung up on long lines between posts in the water. The height of the lines means that the oysters spend part of the day in the water and part of the day above the water as the tide comes in and out. This is critical as it means the oyster must ‘exercise’ its two main muscles that open and close their shell. By having strong muscles, the oyster is able to keep a tight seal once harvested and in transport – extending their life (up to 14 days) and allowing fresh oysters to be delivered to you at your local seafood restaurant.
The romance of working on an oyster farm and being in and around the water every day, was quickly dispelled by a detailed explanation of the winter water and wind temperatures! Great work in summer, standing in knee deep water enjoying the sun, but in 11 degree water in howling winds with waves surging around you and over your head while wearing 5mm wetsuit – not much fun!
The grading of oysters was really interesting. Every oyster is graded every 4-6 weeks. All the cages are lifeted out of the water onto a boat, taken into town. The whole boat with cages is put onto its trailer and towed to a grading shed in the industrial area. Every shell is graded based on size, shape etc, re-sorted, back in the cage, back on the boat, back to the boat ramp, out to the oyster farm and back in the water. It’s a very labour intensive process.
‘Uglies’ and ‘Doubles’ are the oysters that don’t make the restaurant or export grade. They taste exactly the same – it’s just the shell that doesn’t look the part. You can buy a dozen for a dollar!!!!
The oyster industry on the Eyre Peninsula is worth some $22 million and is the Peninsula’s second largest aquaculture industry exporting to Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Apparently South Australia provides 70% of our oysters and of these, 60% are from the Coffin Bay area. Locally, it employs around 100 people.