The pandemic has cost Australian oyster farmers much of their export and domestic markets as overseas demand drastically dried up and Australian restaurants closed.
- Demand for South Australian oysters has soared in Australia
- Growers have shifted from international exports to local retail
- It’s good news for an industry that suffered from shut borders and closed restaurants during the pandemic
However, as the country re-opened, growers have reported unprecedented demand for their products, with Australian appetites hungry for local oysters.
Steven and Carly Thomson have been riding the choppy waves of South Australia’s oyster industry for 20 years.
After surviving the POMS crisis, the business was thriving — but then there was the tsunami of coronavirus.
“We had farms that were full of oysters for the first time in five years,” Ms Thomson said.
Ms Thomson said they did not have any buyers when restaurants and wholesalers shut down.
“We were really thinking about what oysters we were going to have to throw on roads to die,” she said.
The couple invested everything into their business, Gazander Oysters, and worked off a remote bush property called Little Douglas at the tip of Eyre Peninsula.
With no choice but to innovate and diversify, the Thomsons turned what could have been an existential threat into a bountiful opportunity.
“I did a bit of a brainstorming … we decided that maybe a pop-up shop in some sort of refrigerated van might be a way to go,” Ms Thomson said.
By connecting with customers directly and selling their oysters using social media and their website, the couple were able to tap into a whole new market.
“We started going [to Adelaide] every week … it was great, I had really great public response from people, the biggest concern maybe was that they were unshucked … but what’s really great about COVID and our customers was they embraced that new challenge,” Ms Thomson said.
“The public have been waiting to have a lot more available to them and they seem to have a really voracious appetite for it.
Despite their restaurant orders nearing pre-COVID levels, they have decided to embrace their new business operations.
“It’s actually added another whole arm to our business, which we are continuing this year because it was just really fruitful for us and we really enjoyed it,” Ms Thomson said.
“One of our hardest challenges now is getting good staff, which is an issue in parts of regional Australia, I think.”
Locals embracing their own backyard
South Australian growers have experienced record sales for the past few quarters, which many have attributed to people being happier to spend money on themselves and the fact many locals have been looking to their own backyards for experiences.
Tourism businesses in Coffin Bay have also been enjoying the increased attention.
Ben Catterall from Oyster Farm Tours said Australian tourists have never had a bigger appetite for adventure and oysters.
“Looking at our numbers from the previous years, when we had international tourists and interstate tourists, last year, it was pretty much all South Australians, and we had the busiest year we’ve ever had and that included the three months off for COVID.”
Local demand cancelling out exports
Angel Seafood — one of two sustainable oyster growers in the world – is usually a big exporter but during the depths of the pandemic, it turned to the local industry for stability.
Chief executive Zac Halman said the company pivoted into retail, putting its product into supermarkets where, he said, they have been experiencing great demand.
“Lots of sell-outs throughout the supermarkets, so we really tapped into that, and proved ourselves pretty well in that market and we’re seeking further opportunities in that area now, so it’s worked out really well,” he said.
“This year’s been exceptional with obviously borders reopening and stuff like that, people are getting out and about.
“We’re not exporting at the moment, the demand in the domestic markets is just super strong and we’re really trying to maintain that market.”
Mr Halman said the industry was in good shape at the moment.
“I’m hearing reports of sales and survivability’s really good this year, so I’m hoping all the farmers are filled with joy at the moment,” he said.
“Demand from day one of our oysters being in good condition has just been phenomenal.”
At the end of 2020, the company acquired more than six hectares of additional water leases to increase annual production from 10 to 12 million oysters.
As part of its innovation strategy, the company has been trialling a New Zealand way of farming oysters called Flipfarming in three hectares of its deep-water lease in Coffin Bay.
“These waters are very highly sought after so there’s water here that’s very deep and we got to utilize what we’ve got,” Mr Halman said.
Mr Halman said the new method reduced the impact on workers and would hopefully help retain them in the job.
“This new method, no one gets wet, no one gets in the water — it’s all done on the dry boat and pontoon, so the efficiency gains and productivity will be huge for us,” he said.
“It’s a floating system. We actually take all the product to the basket, so all the infrastructure that’s needed is very minimal compared to the traditional method.”