The Tasmanian oyster industry is primarily based on growing the Pacific Oyster and is an Australian leader in culture technology. The first of Tasmania’s four hatcheries was established in the 1980s and these licensed marine farms grow juveniles, known as spat, to market size and then export them throughout Australia, mainly New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia (SA).
According to Oysters Tasmania, the industry currently employs more than 300 people throughout Tasmania, from the far north-west coast through to the southern part of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel south of Hobart. These farms produce around four million dozen oysters each year, with a current estimated ‘farm gate’ value of $26million.
Tasmania supplies approximately 90% of Australia’s Pacific Oysters.
In February 2016, Biosecurity Tasmania and Oysters Tasmania began to investigate oyster mortality at a Pitt Water grower’s lease where it was determined the deaths were linked to the Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS).
POMS was first detected in NSW in 2010 with millions of oysters wiped out virtually overnight. Although the virus is not a threat to public health, it has a severe impact on oysters with death occurring within a matter of days. In an interview with ABC Rural, Matt Cunningham, a researcher with the Australian Seafood Industries, notes the survival rate of oysters exposed to the virus in Tasmania ranges from a low 3% up to 93%, in the best performing lines. There is the potential for growers to lose up to two years income when affected by the virus.
It is not clear when or how the POMS virus was introduced into Tasmania. Biosecurity Tasmania’s surveillance testing in March 2015 did not find any evidence of POMS in the State. However, tests of frozen samples, collected for other purposes in December 2015, have given some positive indication of POMS. It is thought that the warmer water temperatures and significant rainfall in late January and early February has assisted the virus to take hold as it can be spread by ocean currents. At the time of detection, NSW and SA immediately took precautionary steps by placing a ban on the importation of spat stock from Tasmania. A ban was also put in place to stop stock being moved around Tasmania.
By the end of February 2016 there were six marine growing areas confirmed as POMS infected, with a further four areas suspected of being infected. Testing for the virus was also undertaken on a wild oyster population in the Derwent Estuary which was positive for POMS.
Neil Stump, the Executive Office of Oyster Growers Association, confirmed to ABC News that to date around 40 employees have been retrenched and the costs of the virus have exceeded $5.6 million. Funding for the industry needs to be targeted and the clean-up job could cost millions of dollars.
In an attempt to soften the blow the Tasmanian State Government is waiving licence and lease rental fees for all Tasmanian growers as the impact of the POMS disease spreads. Growers will not have to pay their Shellfish Quality Assurance Program Levy. The package is worth approximately $777,000, approximately $7,500 per grower.
On 7 March 2016, the imposed ban of hatcheries to sell spat within Tasmania was lifted. It is hoped that the introduction of healthy spat is a positive step forward and will relieve some pressure on farmers who are desperate for new stock after being affected by the virus. The lifting of a ban on spat exports to South Australia requires the approval of a second chief veterinary officer which is yet to be received.
The impact of the virus not only affects growers within Tasmania and other states reliant on Tasmanian spat, it also affects transport companies, restaurants and processors through the value chain. Deloitte is currently working with the State Government and a number of other organisations to assist growers and other affected industries by providing restructuring advice and negotiating outcomes with financiers.