Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990
[Nelson and Marlborough Oyster History]
Traditionally, nothing conjures up more delight to the palate than the succulent taste of the oyster, and of course one musn't forget their assumed aphrodisiac properties, as an after dinner benefit. Oysters have also been immortalised in literature, 'The world is my oyster", a famous quote by William Shakespeare. But one piece of New Zealand's oyster story has been forgotten. Oysters were first harvested and traded in the Nelson and Marlborough area, with great relish, as early as the 1850's.
Most people identify with Foveaux Strait or Stewart Island oysters. Only since the 1960's, with the rediscovery of Tasman Bay oysters, have local oysters returned to prominence in our minds.
Somewhere along the course of history, the existence, from early times, of oysters in the top of the South Island was forgotten. In fact, oysters played such an important part in the early market place that special shops, known as 'oyster saloons', were of prominence in Nelson from 1858 until 1907.
So, to retrace our local oysters, let us go back to the very start.
Oysters occur, fossilized, in the limestone rocks of Tata Island, off the Abel Tasman coast. Today, there are three species of oysters in New Zealand: two native oysters, known as the 'dredge oyster' and the 'rock oyster', plus the recently introduced 'Pacific Oyster', which arrived here in the 1970's and subsequently spread widely over New Zealand.
The rock oyster occurs naturally on both coasts in the top half of the North Island. Confusion does exist, in that rock oysters only attach themselves to rocks, or mangrove tree roots, while dredge oysters, which normally live on the surface of mud, will also attach themselves to rocks. So, in some cases, reference has been made to rock oysters in the South Island, but these are, in fact, dredge oysters.
In a few sites, the earliest inhabitants of Tasman Bay and the Marlborough Sounds have left behind, amongst their midden (food refuse tips), discarded oyster shells (1) . The evidence, deposited well before European arrival, indicates that the Maori collected oysters in selected sites and ate them locally.page 4
The Maori name for oyster is Tio, and at the head of Tory Channel is a bay known as Te Tio. In 1838, Captain Chetwode sailed into this bay and, upon discovering the oysters, re-named it Oyster Bay, as it is known today (2) .
In the New Zealand official place name register, there are twelve place names featuring oyster, with six of them in the top of the South Island. There are three oyster bays: one in Tory Channel, one in Port Underwood and the other in Croisilles Harbour. There is an Oyster Island in the Waimea Inlet, an Oyster Point in Wanganui Inlet and an Oyster Stream in the headwaters of the Acheron River. Now tell me that there wasn't an early preoccupation with oysters in our area!
European settlers were familiar with oysters, as they were harvested off the coast of Great Britain, France and in the Mediterranean. One such settler, John Waring Saxton, a gentleman who was most certainly used to the finer tastes of life, was both an astute recorder of the day, as the Saxton Diaries testify, and a fanatical gourmand, who seldom missed the chance to comment on food. In his 1849 Diary, he mentions collecting oysters from Oyster Island and, upon his return to a friend's home, a magnificent oyster supper being prepared that evening (3) . Incidentally Oyster Island, which is still known by that name, was once called Grossi's Island. From 1878 until their home was burntout in 1885, Biaggio Grossi, an Austrian fisherman and oyster dealer, lived on this island with his large family.
The Nelson Examiner newspaper of 1845 lists oysters, on the Nelson retail market price list, at nine pence per hundred. The same paper, in 1859, announced that J Mead of Bridge Street, opposite the Trafalgar Hotel, had a large quantity of fine quality oysters for sale (4) . This was the start of the Nelson Oyster Saloons.
Oyster saloons, today's mystery, were dining rooms which offered oysters for sale in every possible form: in the shell, raw, tinned, bottled, cooked in every conceivable way from soup, stewed, escalloped to fried etc. These saloons also sold fish of every type and, occasionally .rabbits, hares and poultry.page 5
Many of the saloons retained the same locations for fifty years and were occupied by successive oyster dealers. One such location in Nelson is at 75 Bridge Street, near the north-eastern corner of the Bridge Street-Trafalgar Street intersection. The former 'Cafe 75', in Bridge Street, was once an oyster saloon and is probably the only remains of such a shop.
It was popular to frequent oyster saloons in the evening, and newspaper advertising invited customers to try delicious oyster suppers.
Fresh oysters every day was the normal promotion line for oyster saloons. This was achieved by using storage beds inside the Nelson harbour. They would load these up and collect quantities, as required, for each day. In 1902, there was a big scare in Nelson when typhoid broke out. All the saloons made it known that they had moved their beds to outside the boulder bank, to retain fresh clean oysters. (5)
These saloons weren't confined to Nelson. They also occurred in Blenheim, Picton, Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika.
Gradually, the oyster saloon title was superseded by a succession of trend-setting titles. They went like this: oyster and supper rooms, supper rooms, dining rooms, cafe and, finally, the fish supply – cum – fish and chip shop that we all know.
So where did they get their oysters? New Zealand oyster history invariably quotes the industry starting at Stewart Island in approximately 1860, while our own oyster dealers were up and trading at least the year before.
In 1859, a Wellington newspaper described an excursion to Queen Charlotte Sound and quotes, "the oysters which furnish our citizens with many a supper are dredged in the sound" (6) .
When Nelson settlers first examined the Marlborough Sounds, during exploratory trips, they mentioned oysters (7) and, in one instance, being given oysters at the Te Awaiti whaling station in 1845 (8) . So they had local oyster beds in the Marlborough Sounds and Waimea Inlet.
Local traders also imported oysters. In 1858, fifteen boxes of oysters were imported, via a sixteen day journey from Sydney (9) . Oysters continued to be imported to Nelson from Sydney and Melbourne until 1867, when Australia was forced to ban exports, due to dwindling supplies. From 1858 until 1909, rock oysters were imported from the Manukau harbour. These were named 'Auckland Rocks' and were considered sweeter than the local, coppery tasting, oysters (10) .
The earliest evidence found of Stewart Island oysters being imported was 1877 (11) , however, as our local supplies dwindled in the 1910 to 1915 period, Foveaux Strait oysters became our only supply until the 1960's.
Early local oyster beds were located at Port Underwood (12) , Queen Charlotte Sound, Endeavour Inlet, Pelorus Sound (13) , Forsyth Island (14) , New Harbour (Port Hardy, D'Urville Island) (15) , page 6Croisilles Harbour (16) , Port Nelson (17) , Waimea Inlet (18) , Abel Tasman Coast (19) and Golden Bay (20) .
In the early years, oysters were harvested and sold without any control.
However, as had been experienced in England and Australia, oyster fisheries were being destroyed by over fishing. It was therefore not surprising that, in 1865, the Right Honourable Mr Sewell moved that parliament set up a select committee, to consider the protection of the fisheries of New Zealand, especially oyster and herring fisheries (23) .
In October 1866, the government passed the first ever law to protect the fisheries of New Zealand, called The Oyster Fisheries Act 1866.
The all too familiar saga of today's fishing industry including licences, seasons etc. to prevent depletion of the resource, was started over one hundred and twenty four years ago, with the introduction of this Act
The Act made provisions for a licence fee of two shillings and sixpence, a season from April to October and the ability to form artificial oyster beds. Only dredge oysters were covered by the Act.
A regular succession of acts followed, with a gradual attempt to close loopholes that were discovered, and rock oysters were soon included in new legislation (24) .
In 1869 (25) , provision was made for individuals to obtain exclusive rights to natural beds and, in 1873, William Williams and E. Davidson separately advertised their intentions to seek exclusive rights to beds off Puponga, Golden Bay (26) . This legislation was further changed to close the bed for six months, to prevent it being stripped, while exclusive rights were sought (27) . Such closures were sought in 1894, for beds three miles off Cape Campbell (Cloudy Bay) (28) , and 1903, for Anakoa Bay (Outer Sounds) (29)
The new laws were occasionally broken in the rush to meet the market on season opening day. In 1871, a local fisherman, James Stringer, collected oysters from the Waimea River six days before opening day. He was approached, near the Custom House wharf, by Police Sergeant Nash, who discovered Stringer's sack of oysters. They returned to Stringer's boat where more sacks were observed. Stringer knocked Sergeant Nash into the tide and rowed off towards the beach, with his boatful of oysters. A constable was summoned to follow Stringer's progress from land and he observed him dumping the sacks. These were recovered at low tide as evidence, and tasty evidence at that James Stringer was fined five pounds and warned that, if he broke the law again, he would lose his licence for three years (30) .
Several people took up the opportunity to form artificial oyster beds between 1895 and 1898 (31) . They were: Henry Baxter and William Davenport – Arrowsmith Bay, Tory Channel; Alexander Maule – Black Point, Pelorus Sound; Peter Ewing – Hitaua Bay, Tory Channel; Percy Neame-Mahau, Pelorus Sound; E O'Hara Canavan – Motueka. Most of these people never got started, but the ones that did weren't successful. Experimentation in farming continued between 1904 and 1920, including attempts to seed oysters in Cook Strait. In 1918, for example, 80 sacks of Foveaux Strait oysters were seeded in Cook Strait, at Clifford Bay near Blenheim (32) . In 1922, an attempt was made to plant rock oysters in the Marlborough Sounds (33) . Despite initial signs of promise, all these attempts ultimately failed.
Legal provision was made to close natural beds, to allow them to recover. The first beds to be closed were, in 1872, at Stewart Island. Our beds were also closed. Oyster Bay, in Tory Channel, was closed for two years in 1882 while, in 1895, parts of Queen Charlotte Sound and Endeavour Inlet were closed for four years. The Waimea Inlet was closed, initially for two years, in 1886 and later, in 1911, for four years, including Nelson Haven. Parts of Pelorus Sound were closed in 1898.
Even with attempts to create artificial beds and spell other beds, the decline in oysters continued. Other catastrophies may also have contributed to this decline. Periodically our sea is plagued with a phytoplankton bloom, referred to as 'slime', (first recorded in Tasman Bay in the 1860's) which page 7suffocates fish and shellfish. The great slime of 1901 was observed, by a fisherman named Westrup, to have seriously destroyed oyster beds in Golden Bay (34) .
Over the years of gradual depletion, some of the beds disappeared completely, while some still exist today, with small quantities of oysters.
In 1900, the Marine Department initiated an experimental trawling, throughout New Zealand, with the steam trawler Doto, to assess the potential of our inshore fisheries. In Tasman Bay, they encountered the most plentiful supply of fish in the entire voyage, and noted considerable numbers of oysters (35) . Perhaps these newly discovered oyster beds were also over exploited, and didn't recover until their rediscovery in the 1960's. The Tasman Bay beds continue to support a dredge oyster industry that is second only to Foveaux Strait.
Over the years, the oyster season has periodically changed by a month or two but, as with all seasonal foods, we fondly await the opening day. In fact, seasonal food provides some expectation in an otherwise mundane diet.
Pacific oysters, which were first discovered in Pelorus Sound in 1977, have spread widely throughout Nelson and Marlborough. In 1981, local MAF scientists predicted that it was possible to start farming these oysters in our region (36) .
Last year the first applications, followed by more this year, have been lodged to set up Pacific oyster farms at Uruti Bay (Port Underwood), Ohinetaha Bay and Okiwi Bay. Better results are expected with the use of the new vigorous Pacific Oyster, rather than our own native oysters.
With our mussel farms and scallop enhancement already proven, the Pacific Oyster farms may really promote the top of the south as a seafood gourmet's paradise. Who knows, once again there might just be a niche for seafood saloons.