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Port Stephens Oyster Industry Update

Ms KATE WASHINGTON (Port Stephens) (18:12): I take this opportunity to inform the House about a very serious issue playing out in my electorate of Port Stephens, which has a long and proud history of oyster farming. In fact, we produce some of the highest quality and most sought-after oysters in Australia. Some families in Port Stephens have worked in the industry for generations. Oyster farming underpins the entire economy in towns like Karuah, attracting visitors and providing local jobs. But, if members were to visit an oyster farm in Port Stephens today, they would be confronted by devastation. On the Tilligerry Peninsula, near Lemon Tree Passage, one can turn onto Oyster Farm Road. As the road turns to dirt, the oyster farms stretch out in front, alongside Tilligerry Creek. There is not usually a lot to see around the oyster farms, because most of the action on an oyster farm is underwater.

But, when I visited last weekend, thousands upon thousands of oyster racks were stacked everywhere along the road. At the very end of the road there were massive, stinking piles of thousands of oyster shells, dead and empty. That is what an industry struggling to survive looks like—oyster racks out of the water and mountains of dead oysters going to waste. Sadly, the devastating QX disease has hit our oyster industry in Port Stephens. QX does not have any impact on human health but is deadly to Sydney rock oysters, which are grown across our estuaries. The disease was first detected in August last year, but since then it has spread much quicker and further than anticipated. The mortality rate has been much worse than predicted. Lingering water quality issues after years of drought, successive floods and copious rainfall have not helped. In some areas 100 per cent of the oyster stock has died. This is a crushing blow to our local oyster farmers, their families, their workers and their communities. Many of them simply have no oysters left to sell and no income to pay their workers or their mortgages and bills.

Sydney rock oysters take two to three years to mature, so this event will have long-lasting impacts. Without support from the Government, most oyster farmers simply will not survive. With no stock to grow and sell next year, or for years after that, fifth-generation farmers are now considering walking away from the only industry they have ever known. Workers are being laid off, off-farm income is becoming necessary for survival and stress and heartache is high. As their local member of Parliament, I am fighting for these farmers and their workers. We must ensure that our local oyster industry survives. Its significant contribution to the local economy and the State economy cannot be lost. In the past two weeks, I have met with a number of local oyster farmers across Port Stephens and seen firsthand the devastation they are living through. I have heard their heartache.

One of the first things I did was contact the Minister for Agriculture, Dugald Saunders, who I note is in the Chamber tonight. I thank him for being here. I have had a number of productive meetings with his office over the past fortnight. It was important to ensure that the Minister was well aware of the dire situation facing our local industry. I am grateful to the Minister and his staff for their responsiveness so far. I am also grateful to the department and to DPI Fisheries for their close and supportive relationship with local oyster farmers over recent years. It is clear to everyone that this industry must be supported in order to survive this shocking disease. There are a number of agricultural grants and subsidies that I hope will be made available to oyster farmers. As the local member of Parliament, I will be fighting to ensure that every single oyster farmer receives every last dollar they are entitled to as soon as possible, but those grants alone will not be enough. Oyster farmers are asking the State Government for fee waivers while they have no income. That is a reasonable request and one that I hope is acted upon as soon as possible.

The farmers are also being proactive. With the assistance of Business Connect, local oyster farmers are putting together a plan and a business case to pivot to Pacific oysters, which are not susceptible to the QX disease and can be grown more quickly than Sydney rock oysters. That would provide local growers with the opportunity to earn income again sooner to survive the current threat and lay the foundations for an industry capable of returning to the production of the world-famous Sydney rock oysters it is renowned for. That plan will necessarily require further government support, and I trust that the Minister will be on deck to help us on that front. I feel for my local oyster farmers, their families and their workers. As their local member of Parliament, I will continue to fight for them to ensure that this important industry has a future in Port Stephens.

Mr DUGALD SAUNDERS (Dubbo—Minister for Agriculture, and Minister for Western New South Wales) (18:17): I thank the member for Port Stephens for her private member's statement and recognise the dire impact that this is having in Port Stephens at the moment. She mentioned a few things that are worth noting. There are grants available through disaster recovery, there are low-interest loans and there are other things are being looked at. Hopefully, as the member for Port Stephens said, that can be progressed fairly quickly. I also ask any growers that are impacted not to self-assess. They should get help from a rural financial counsellor or a Department of Primary Industries flood recovery officer and talk to their local financial person, whether it is their accountant or business operator. The Government wants to get money out the door as quickly as possible to support as many people as possible. Moving to disease-resistant varieties like Pacific oysters is certainly part of the answer. I am confident that with the ongoing support of DPI Fisheries we can get the industry back to where it needs to be long-term. I thank the member for raising this issue.


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