The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 8 (November 1, 1938)
Twenty Billion of the World's Finest Oysters — The Famous Oyster Beds In Foveaux Strait
One must be up before the dawn to sail with the Bluff oyster fleet when they put out to garner a harvest of the celebrated shell fish from the sea floor of Foveaux Strait.
The city of Invercargill was very properly wrapped in slumber when I set out on the twelve-mile drive to Bluff.
Dawn was still an hour distant as the fleet of some dozen oyster boats began to cast off from the wharf and glide noiselessly out to sea like phantom ships. Our boat was the first away, and soon was heaving over the long, easy swell in the open straits. As the sun, heralded by a sky of brilliant colouring, leapt above the horiozn to paint a pathway of gleaming gold across the lazily-heaving ocean, we reached a spot which, I was informed, was directly above the oyster beds. The crew sprang to their stations.
“Let ‘er go!” bawled the skipper, and the aft drag-net was heaved from the gunwale, splashing down on its journey to the sea-bed at the end of a stout wire rope. For ten minutes we steamed slowly ahead while the iron lower jaw of the net scraped the sea-floor. Then the forward drag-net on the same side was sent below with a mighty splash.
“Stand by!” hooted the “Old Man” at the winch forward. The winch rattled vigorously and soon the aft net broke the surface, bulging with a ton of oysters. Up and down it was plunged several times to thoroughly wash from it all grit and sand, then heaved aloft.
Up on the gunwale sprang the three members of the aft crew. Clinging to stays and stanchions they leaned out and seized the loaded net. “Ahoy!” howled the head man. “Ahoy!” roared the skipper, who was obscured in a cloud of steam as the winch rattled and the net descended to rest on the gunwale, under the vigorous guidance of the aft crew.
To the accompaniment of further hoots and howls, each, no doubt, having a definite meaning in the language of the oyster-men, the net is completely upturned, disgorging the last of its contents. Then, “Hup!” yelled the headman, “hup!” hollered the skipper; the winch roared again, and up went the drag-net with a rush. A moment later and the net was once more on its way to the bottom for a fresh supply.
Now it is the turn of the forward crew where a similar procedure is carried out; the aft crew meantime having gone feverishly to work sorting the oysters on their bench. Only the best oysters, not less than 1 ¾ inches in diameter, are retained, the remainder being thrown into a chute which returns them to the sea. The good oysters are thrown into a box beside the sorter, and, when full, the box is emptied on to the deck, a tally being kept of the number of boxes thus disposed of.
And so the work proceeds with tireless energy. No sooner is a bench cleared than up comes the drag-net with a fresh cargo, fore and aft alternately. Not the least busy person is the skipper—who is obliged, constantly, to hop-blithely from the winch to his elevated wheelhouse, where he swings the wheel furiously just in time to avoid colliding with one of the dozen other oyster boats, similarly engaged. A freshening wind has kicked up a choppy sea and the oyster boats are now plunging and bucking on their semi-circular courses, so that it is only the unfailing vigilance and seamanship of their busy skippers that prevent disaster.
A brief interval for lunch, then on they go again. The oysters piled on deck have swelled into prodigious heaps. Our day's quota is nearly reached. One more drag, and she's a full ship.
The final episode in the day's work begins the moment we have made fast at the special oyster wharf. All hands and the cook man a shovel and set-to with a will to shovel the cargo over the side on to the special platforms beneath the wharf. Unloading proceeds at a furious pace and without a pause. The last few shovelsfull are hurled across a widening gap as the ship is already swinging out and gathering way back to the mooring wharf. As she races across the bay shovels are stowed, decks sluiced down, and five minutes later our ship lies peacefully at her moorings, while the crew bustles ashore, eager to miss none of the football match taking place in Bluff that afternoon.
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A few statistics concerning Bluff's celebrated oysters make intersting reading, and, together with the allied industries of fishing and mutton-birding which also flourish in this locality, give some idea of the vast natural wealth with which New Zealand is endowed.
It is interesting to note that the oyster beds of Foveaux Strait are easily the largest in the world. For size and flavour, also, they are the recognised aristocrats of their kind. Apart from their universal popularity for their succulence, the outstanding healthful qualities of the oyster as a food is now becoming widely appreciated. It is one of the most easily digested foods we eat, and contains much more iodine than milk, eggs or beefsteak, a quality invaluable in the prevention of goitre. Its rich content of copper and iron is valuable as a blood-maker. It contains also magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, elements in which many of our ordinary foods are deficient.
We are prone to accept Nature's most lavish gifts without adequate appreciation of their tremendous value, and nowhere is this more strikingly exemplified than with regard to the Foveaux Strait oyster beds. Nowhere else in the world has Nature been so prodigious. Most other countries rely upon intensive and laborious cultivation for their supplies. In Australia, for example, oyster cultivation has become a large industry, involving much work and expensive farming. New South Wales is the greatest producer. Here, in certain tidal areas, notably in The George's River, oysters are encouraged to grow on specially-provided structures of wood, wire-netting, or sandstone.
More than sixty million oysters were harvested from Foveaux Strait last year, yet it is estimated that the present supply would maintain that output for the next three hundred years!
It has been estimated—and, it is claimed, conservatively—that the beds already known to the oystermen, in the Strait, contain at least 20,000,000 sacks, or something approaching 20,000,000,000 oysters!
Recent talk of the Bluff oyster beds becoming depleted concerned only what is known as the East bed, which, being the most accessible, has been regularly dredged for the past 50 years. It is probable that this bed will be closed for several seasons. Since an oyster lays, millions of eggs each year the supply is rapidly renewed provided a sufficient quantity of broken shell is available upon which the spawn can adhere. It is proposed to dump large quantities of shell on this bed, and to supply the market from the West bed. Another bed which may now be worked is that off Saddle Point, Stewart Island, and which covers about 30 square miles of the sea-floor.
The Foveaux Strait oyster beds are at depths varying from 14 to 30 fathoms, and experienced oystermen maintain that, all-told, they cover nearly 100 square miles. In 1931 the late Mr. Wm. Vear, diver for the Bluff Harbour Board, explored the main oyster beds. Armed with a gardening fork he roamed the sea-floor and wherever he dug found oysters to a depth of from eight to ten inches. A remarkable feature he reported, was the excellent visibility due to light being reflected from above by a great carpet of white shells.
And so, gradually, we of New Zealand are learning to estimate and to appreciate one more of the great resources which establishes the Dominion as one of the richest countries in the world, in terms of real wealth.