tonyhSun, 29/09/2019 - 4:44pm

This meeting was held to provide feedback on progress to date in addressing the many concerns residents have over recent changes to oyster farming methodology in North Arm Cove.

Oyster farmers have moved from the traditional intertidal post and rail rack cultivation systems to the floating basket long line cultivation system. There are clearly advantages of the new system for the farmers and we respect their rights to run their businesses and make a living. However, the methodology also has negative impacts on us as their neighbours.

We have been completely excluded from the decision-making process and this has left many residents uninformed, confused and angry about the visual impact, pollution of our waterways and possibly even the threat to the safety of public health.

Some residents are also convinced that the new system has diminished property values through loss of amenity.

Bob Reid made a presentation covering the important points of interest which included:

  • Oyster lease history
  • What our concerns are with the location of leases 86/138 and 86/140
  • What we have done and achieved so far
  • What we are still working on
  • The sewage contamination issue

Bob explained the long-term history of Fisheries mismanagement of the leases which includes their failure to enforce their own best practice guidelines and the Oyster Industry Sustainable Aquaculture Strategy (OISAS).

He circulated notes at the meeting and they are attached.

In particular, Bob placed significant emphasis on the issue of public health and safety. The two North Arm Cove leases are located along the shoreline of a village with well over 300 on-site wastewater management systems (OWMS).

Statistical records show that 15 to 40% of these systems will probably be dysfunctional at any one time. Awareness of this compels the farmers to do their own water testing and to rely on a system called depuration to ‘flush’ the oysters of potential human (and other) forms of bacterial contamination before they are sent to market.

Oysters in polluted water can be contaminated with bacteria and viruses. Depuration is considered effective against bacteria but there is little evidence to suggest that it is effective against viral contamination and the industry has no strategy which guarantees viral elimination.

There have been a number of instances in NSW where viral contamination in oysters, strongly suspected to be from human sources, has caused sickness and even a death. Viruses can reside in oysters for long periods.

So, the issue is whether oyster farming should be permitted in an area where the viral risk would seem very high.

Bob showed us a risk analysis matrix which is based on the Australian Government’s Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) framework for aquaculture. The OISAS has been developed with reference to this framework, and ESD is the foundation for aquaculture management in NSW.

Bob used his own “Consequence descriptors” for the analysis, but he asked the audience to make their own judgement on the level of risk the oyster industry is taking by farming here. It was evident that everyone thought the risk to the public could range from ‘Severe’ to ‘Catastrophic’. So why is farming permitted here?

Regarding the issue of “What have we done/achieved so far?”, Bob gave several examples. But above everything, it is clear that the DPI and Fisheries are very conscious of our concerns and are working to put actions in place that address some of the mismanagement issues that we have raised.

However, the public health and safety issue is predominant. We are aware that the MidCoast Council has come under increasing pressure recently to put in measures to totally contain spills from OWMS or eradicate the threat completely. We know they can’t guarantee the latter, but the options for the former are being considered.

They include compulsory and frequent pump-outs and/or alarms on all systems. Ultimately, they may be forced into the installation of a local sewage treatment plant which all residents would be obliged to connect to. Any of these options could be costly both to the Council and us as residents.

The simpler, cheaper and most obvious solution would be to move the leases well away from pollution sources. Bob explained that he had approached one leaseholder with a tentative proposal that might involve willing residents providing financial assistance in the cost of moving the two critical leases, but the lessee said no, they are not interested.

Bob finished with the question, “Where do we go from here?”

The audience was unanimous in agreeing that the current situation was unacceptable. They agreed that this is not just an issue affecting a few residents, but one that affects the whole community and consumers of oysters grown in North Arm Cove. The prospect of every household having to pay to upgrade its sewer system to protect the interests of two very small farming operations was sobering.

For some 20 years, the Cove has benefitted from a stalwart of NACRA. Janine Reid, a NAC house owner and qualified scientist, has been the driver of the aquaculture subcommittee for NACRA. She has diligently kept comprehensive records of the developments and changes in Port Stephens oyster industry and corresponded frequently with Fisheries in persistent efforts to bring our concerns to their attention and to get things improved.

As an example, in 2006, the aquaculture subcommittee wrote to the NSW DPI in response to an invitation to comment on the Oyster Industry Sustainable Aquaculture Strategy (OISAS) – letter attached. The subcommittee responded with an extremely detailed critique of the OISAS with many recommendations to improve farming management. It also challenged many assumptions made in the OISAS to justify the then current farming practices. The NACRA response was completely ignored by the DPI and all the concerns remain valid today. Nothing has changed.

At the meeting, Janine was able to complement Bob’s presentation with facts and figures.

Her presence led to the question: Exactly what support are we were getting from the body (i.e. NACRA) that our community has nominated to represent our interests in issues such as this?

Frankly the response was quite shocking. The initial reaction of NACRA to the petition and our communication with the DPI and Fisheries was to gag Janine by forbidding any communications between her and Fisheries without prior approval of the NACRA Secretary.

Since then, however, we have been told that NACRA has actually discontinued the aquaculture subcommittee altogether! This has been done without explanation and without consultation with the wider membership who would be unaware of the full implications of Bob’s presentation and the history of our dealings with the industry.

The NACRA exec was conspicuous by its absence at yesterday’s meeting. There has been no offer to discuss any concerns with us. It appears that NACRA does not intend to support us in any way and may even be trying to block our efforts. This is sad. NACRA is the body that we would naturally rely on for support.

The mood in the meeting was unanimously in favour of pursuing the process through to the end. This requires us to call on all available resources to help us get acceptable solutions. Proposals were put forward for meetings with Midcoast Council, with Fisheries, with the Director General of DPI (who is currently refusing to meet with us) and with Kate Washington.

Meanwhile we are deeply indebted to Bob and Janine Reid for the hundreds of hours they have put into collecting records, keeping watch, in communicating with Fisheries and the DPI on our behalf and in keeping us up to date.

Thank you both.

Tony Hann



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