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Rock is dead? Scientists, iwi investigate bringing back rock oyster industry

NIWA scientists and the Northland-based Kahukuraariki Trust Board are investigating whether Aotearoa New Zealand’s long defunct rock oyster industry can be revived by using modern aquaculture practices could be used to farm rock oysters and turn them into a viable industry.

Trust general manager Geraldine Baker said that the iwi’s strong relationship with the marine environment, and a relatively recent history of subsistence from the whenua and the moana, made looking to the sea to develop customary, commercial and employment opportunities for current and future generations, an easy choice.

“The focus on the native rock oyster was to rejuvenate the once prosperous industry that flourished in the Whangaroa Harbour before the introduction of the pacific oyster.

“We understand there are going to be challenges, but so far it’s looking fairly promising. Once proof of concept has been reached, the next step will be to partner with like-minded investors. We’re confident our wider Iwi whanaunga will see the benefits for their members, the opportunity to utilise their own water space, employ and develop their people and the investment in Te Taitokerau region in general, as something they want to be part of.”

NIWA marine biologist Dr Sean Handley says the rock oyster, found here and in Australia where it is known as the Sydney rock oyster, was a fledging industry here in the late 1960s until it was overtaken by the Pacific oyster.

“Farmers adopted the Pacific oyster because it grew faster and larger and was easier to grow. That led to the rock oyster largely being overlooked here for the past 50 years.”

However, Dr Handley said the Pacific oyster was severely affected by a herpes virus about 10 years ago which knocked back populations and had a devastating effect on the industry. Work to develop breeding programmes to overcome the virus is still ongoing.

Dr Handley said in Australia the rock oysters fetch a premium price over Pacific oysters as they have a more intense flavour, despite being smaller.

He believes any rock oyster industry here would initially be more of an iwi-led niche product but could be developed to compliment the Pacific oyster market.

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