AT this time of year local oyster farmers should be laughing, getting ready to kick back and enjoy the end of a fruitful season, instead they are counting dollars going down the drain.
The farmers have worked hard to ensure their product is the envy of the oyster industry. Local product is exported to many markets around Australia. The estuary has a farm gate value of over $1.5 million.
However the gleaming reputation now has a bitter taste.
This year alone four surcharges and overflows of raw sewage meant farmers could not harvest or sell their product for 12 weeks. There has been just seven weeks this year farmers have been able to get their product to the market. November to April is an oyster farmer’s peak season.
Every surcharge means farmers must close their harvesting and selling operation for a period of three weeks, by which time the oysters have filtered out any contaminants.
“If nothing is done, it could be the end of the Camden Haven oyster industry,” said farmer Harry Van Haren.
Brandon Armstrong agreed: “Word gets out in the marketplace that we are not reliably able to produce oysters on a consistent basis because of closures, our reputation gets tainted.”
In the past river closures have occurred at time when customers love to buy bulk oysters - Christmas and Easter.
The NSW Food Authority is the organization that issues the closure when a surcharge occurs. The council does not inform the farmers, or the public, about sewage overflows.
“While it’s not nice, we want people to understand what’s going into the river,” Jason Armstrong said.
“While the council marks the upgrade of the new sewage treatment plant in Dunbogan, back up the line there is a problem and raw sewage is still leaking into the water. We conduct water and meats tests on the oysters to ensure they are safe, but the public are not told when a spill has happened and could get sick if they eat an oyster they’ve picked from a rock.”
In 2000 the oyster industry began its quality assurance program.
“It became clear that there was a problem with the sewerage system in the Queens Lake area,” said farmer Tony Troup.
“We were informed that the system installed in 1972 was no longer up to the demands of the population. The system was upgraded in a piecemeal and as one section improved the next would fail.
“Things were brought to a head in 2008 and the Food Authority was concerned about the number of spills and the leaking Dunbogan bridge sewer pipe.”
That season saw eight closures over the 2007/08 harvesting period.
“We met with the then administrator Dick Persson in 2008 and he announced the work needed to bring the sewerage system up to a satisfactory standard would be completed before the next Christmas. That promise was broken by council staff after Dick Persson left the position,” Mr Troup said.
The oyster farmers last met with the council in February this year, following the third sewage spill.
“We were fed a lot of technical information and came away with no commitments. We agree that work completed so far has reduced the number of surcharges over previous years, now it’s all happening because of problems at pump station number one, near the fish co-op and it then backs up the line all the way to the pizza shop (Big Brother). We just want what we were promised years ago,” said farmer Brett Harper.
In a recent letter of response to the oyster farmers, council administrator Neil Porter said additional work to the problematic pump station would include the upgrade of power supply which would result in increased pumping capacity. The council acknowledged recent substantial rain and said should similar conditions occur in future, there was likely to be a surcharge.
“Irrespective of the alterations at the pumping station, only flows attributable to a 1 in 5 year (ARI) rainfall event are catered for. There will still be surcharge from rainfall events greater than these events. It is also likely that future surcharges will occur from time to time from operational issues such as blocked pumps or broken mains or power failure,” the letter stated.
“It is therefore impossible to construct infrastructure to avoid all surcharges and, even if it were, additional works would also compete with other important sewerage scheme initiatives such as the provision of reticulated supply to the village areas.”
At the time of writing the council had not responded to questions put forward by the Camden Haven Courier, which included why the council has no backup plan, like extra storage or the ability to pump out excess flows during wet weather, to prevent raw sewage spilling into the river.