DUGONGS, turtles and stingrays roam free across the underwater plain as seasoned oyster farmer Greg Nankervis sidles his aluminium runabout up to his office – a small stretch of open ocean off the west coast of North Stradbroke Island.
“We just thought it was a good idea. Thought it would be good fun – not knowing what was involved at the time.”
Greg has been running a small oyster lease in the Dialba Passage for the past 11 years after his mate suggested he take up the opportunity.
“Knowing about it now, I’d probably say I wouldn’t have bought it [laughs] – but I do love it and it’s nice working out here.”
A certain level of sarcasm filters into the conversation. “It’s pretty hard to take, especially when the weather’s good.”
Greg smiles and his eyes light up. While he admits there are tough days and the work is labour intensive, he is not far from living the dream.
“I highly suggest a visit to Straddie – the beaches, the water, the laid-back atmosphere. Even if you work on the mainland, you come home on the water taxi and just feel the pressure just drain away from you – it’s perfect.”
Greg said the rock oyster was a feast for the oyster aficionado. “To me, the rock oyster is a flavour oyster, and any true oyster lover will have them freshly opened, not even washed, and have the juice that’s in there.
“They’re not for Kilpatrick or anything like that. It should be eaten for flavour so when you first put it in your mouth, you should chew the oyster because you get the saline flavour with a little bit of the oyster behind it.
“Chew it and, after you swallow it is when the real rock oyster, creamy texture comes through, and I always tell people it’s two flavours – the salty sea flavour and then the creaminess of the oyster. “Fresh is best – you don’t want them sitting in a bucket cold room for too long.”
Greg said he was still considered a ‘farmer’, proudly contributing a small portion to the gross value of total fisheries production last financial year.
“We’re still a primary producer so, yeah, we’re farmers. There’s a different logic to it; obviously you’re tied in with tides and can only work half-tide through to low-tide back up to half-tide. If you don’t do that, you’ve either got to have a barge out on the lease or take it all home, which is what we do predominantly.”
Greg and Ingrid spend hours culling smaller oysters that have attached themselves to the outer shell of the adults and checking on their crop.
“We take it home and work from there where you’ve got the comforts of a cup of coffee and the toilet when you need it, and if you want to stop, you can. Out on the lease, you’ve got to work the tide, otherwise the tide will beat you and so you’re limited by that – it’s farming with a restriction.”
Greg and Ingrid will spend days cooking off the spat (young oysters) using a three second broiling method.
“We have a stainless steel tub which has a gas heater and we set it at 72-76 degrees and dunk them and throw them back in the water. It kills off all the little ones but doesn’t hit the big oyster, hopefully. Otherwise you’ve got a lot of oyster soup.”
With all the usual handicaps that land-based farmers experience including feed, weather and pollution, Greg said one bad day could trigger a domino effect of financial loss.
“If the oysters don’t feed properly you can get die-back, and we regulate the water and meat with constant testing.
“If something comes through from the tests that’s a bit funny, you get closures of the lease so you can’t sell or do anything. In peak time, when you’re trying to make your money, it’s like telling a farmer that’s growing lettuce, if they’re ready to pick, that they can’t pick them for two weeks. They’ll all rot and it’s that sort of logic.”
Far from calling himself an ‘organic’ farmer, Greg has lived on the island for most of his life and said he was enjoying the opportunity to produce a natural product.
“I feel the word organic is a very loose word these days. Yes, it is organic because we don’t feed the oyster anything or give them anything – they live off mother nature.
“So, yes, it is organic but is it the true word of ‘organic’? I don’t know. They’re mother nature’s product – we just look after them.”
With his parents building their home along the shore some 60 years ago, Greg returned to the area with his wife five years ago to live and work with oysters full-time.
“I just enjoy the serenity and you look around and the mainland is way over there, and Straddie is way over there and there’s no one else around – that’s my little niche.
“It’s just a great feeling and there’s so much to see out here. We harvested around 10,000 dozen saleable oysters in 2014, which is the biggest we’ve ever had and we’re only small – there are big growers out there who have millions of dozen.”
After packing a line of oyster baskets into his boat, Greg escapes the rising tide and heads back to the mainland to scrape the spat from the mature oysters.
“They’re incredibly easy to grow because they spawn and then attach to anything – so we’ve really got to keep on top of it.”
As the spat attaches to the adult oyster, it begins to disfigure the original shell with its own, eventually rendering the adult useless for sale.
“We have a food safe room at Amity Point where we’re licensed to process the oysters, and then we’ll sell them at the Sunday markets and local cafes.
“People will ring us up looking for them and we used to sell them to bigger restaurants on the mainland, but the rising transport costs have set us back a bit so we now just sell locally.”
Dialba Oysters’ bivalve mollusc stock comes from NSW and falls under the True Oyster banner – edible oysters that are grown for consumption rather than pearl production.
“The spat, or smaller oyster, are brought up each year around March and then we grow them out,” Greg said.
The amount of spat purchased will depend greatly on how many are sold the previous year.
“Basically, we’re looking at two years in advance because they take a year-and-a-half to two years to grow. So we won’t sell them this year, but the year after, so we’re always ahead of time.”
Greg said the operation depended on smooth sailing for the stock. “If you have some problem somewhere along the line, you effectively lose that pattern. If someone steals your oysters, or there’s a die-back, you’ve lost your income and a year-and-ahalf to two years of work and, nine times out of 10, you lose all your bags as well.”
The Nankervis oyster lease is within the Moreton Bay Marine Park, with Greg the custodian of his small aquatic patch.
“All the leases have got to be absolutely spick and span; you can’t have rubbish on them – which is good from a marine park point of view but not a fish stock point of view.
“There’s nowhere for the animals to hide so they’ll get in our oyster bags if predatory fish come around but, when the tide drops, there’s nothing for them.”
Greg said he had seen a major depletion of fish stocks in the area because of a lack of appropriate nesting grounds for feeder fish.
“They’re putting artificial reefs around Moreton Bay and sometimes on the old oyster leases and, even though it wasn’t right, there were bits of metal and rubbish on the lease but it created a haven.
“I still think having that for the smaller prawns and little fish, to protect them, means the whole lot could come together then and it can be done with logic by the marine park.
“I think having our bare, spick and span leases is not the answer, whether it’s an artificial oyster bank lease getting it established again across the front of the leases, just somewhere where things can hide.”
Greg said the local association of oyster farmers on the island gave the farmers some relief if a problem arose.
“We have meetings every so often and call each other up – we keep an eye out for each other’s leases while we’re out there. If we see boats hanging around that shouldn’t be there, we go and find out what they’re doing.”
The Moreton Bay oyster population has luckily escaped the aggressive QX parasite that has ravaged southern stock.
“It’s hit the oyster industry pretty bad and wiped out a lot of areas in New South Wales and Tweed River but, I think because we’re more estuarine, the host doesn’t have the right muddy type of environment to breed and live in.
“The clean water of the bay may be what’s saved us.”