Is our Cove your Oyster?

dougkMon, 16/01/2012 - 11:26am

Oyster leases can be seen around the Cove and adjacent areas of Port Stephens. Although not all of these leases are as active as they once were, the industry is celebrated annually at the Karuah Oyster and Timber Festival. How did this local industry start?

Oysters had been a valuable food source for coastal Aborigines for millennia. NSW oysters quickly became popular with European settlers and their shells were also used as a source of lime for cement. By the 1860s, increasing population had depleted the natural supplies so the possibility of cultivating oysters was explored. (See NSW DPI: Oyster Industry in NSW)

Oyster farming began seriously in NSW following the passing of the Oyster Fisheries Act. This Act did not have universal support as evidenced in this extract of an item from the Sydney Morning Herald of 23 August 1884.

A bitter experience has taught the people of this country to watch very closely the working of any measure which may even remotely affect an Interest in land. Few, however, might suspect that such an innocent sounding measure as the "Oyster Fisheries Act " of 1884 is already being made a weapon of aggression against public rights. The Act provides that the Governor may grant a lease for the purpose of oyster culture of any portion of the foreshore not exceeding 2000 linear yards, for a period of fifteen years, at the rate of twenty shillings per 100 yards. Exclusive privileges of this kind are no doubt necessary to the proper cultivation of the succulent bivalve, for whose preservation and frequent presence on his table the most ardent land nationaliser would be ready to abate something of his principles. But shrewd speculators and landowners have seen that the Act opens to them a very easy means of gaining money, or of excluding the public from public property.

The first applications for oyster leases in Port Stephens were published in the SMH on 23 May 1885.

Robert Hoddle Driberg White had sought six leases covering Balberook Cove, Karuah River, Salamander Bay, No. 1 Cove (just west of Tahlee) and two adjacent to Tahlee. RHD White was the then owner of Tahlee House. He was also the Member for Gloucester in the NSW Legislative Assembly.

One other surname that recurs many times in this list is Armstrong: the sets of initials were RR, WG and LFM.

Richard Ramsay Armstrong had been a Royal Navy officer and a senior public servant but had been accused of impropriety in his service on Lord Howe Island. He was still busy in 1885 trying to clear his name and gain compensation. He had several sons including William George Armstrong and Laurens Frederick Matthews Armstrong. Both these sons had matriculated at Sydney University in 1882.

LFM Armstrong, the younger son, earned the University medal in Classics then completed a law degree. He became a barrister in 1890, was “Chief Censor” for NSW during WWI and ultimately was appointed as a Judge of the NSW District Court. (As a newly appointed judge in 1919, he had ordered a flogging which State Cabinet was forced to remit, there being no public flagellator by then in NSW. SMH 10 Feb 1919)

WG Armstrong moved into medicine after his Arts degree. During his career, he was responsible for introducing major initiatives in public health (particularly regarding mothers and infants) and became NSW Director General of Public Health.

While the other Armstrongs had nearby leases, it was WG Armstrong who had the first oyster lease in North Arm Cove itself as well as leases off Barromee Point and in the Karuah River.

These were certainly very distinguished oyster farmers! But I wonder if that SMH writer wouldn't have included them in his category of “shrewd speculators and landowners”?

At some point, the Pacific oyster must have been introduced to Port Stephens. Because of the local prevalence of Pacific oysters in the wild, from 1990 Port Stephens' oyster farmers have been permitted to cultivate them. Elsewhere in NSW, the Pacific oyster is declared a “noxious fish”. (See NSW DPI: Pacific Oyster Culture in NSW)