Original story by Kerry Staight at ABC News
The lure of a lucrative European market is prompting a growing number of Australian shellfish producers to invest in native angasi oysters.
The flat oyster already fetches around double the price of the better known Pacific oyster domestically, and the industry says it could potentially fetch up to five times the price in countries like France.
“Their native flat oyster is identical in flavour and appearance to ours,” South Australian oyster grower Brendan Guidera said.
“That used to be their main oyster up until the early 70s, and as they get rarer and rarer they also become more sought after.”
Mr Guidera, a Coffin Bay producer, is one of the country’s most awarded shellfish farmers.
While he has built his company Pristine Oysters around Pacific oysters, he is also leading the revival of angasis.
“An angasi in good condition, I’d prefer over a Pacific anytime,” he said.
“It’s a much stronger flavour. It’ll linger on the back of your palate for about five minutes after you’ve eaten it.”
The angasi oyster may be unfamiliar to many, but in the mid-1800s the native species did a roaring trade with wild stock scooped off the sea floor.
But overfishing lead to a decline in that industry and by the early 20th century the native species was all but forgotten.
Deadly syndrome affecting pacific oyster forced rethink
In more recent times the Pacific oyster, which originates in Japan, has dominated oyster production in South Australia and Tasmania.
However, the emergence of the deadly Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS), which has devastated shellfish farms in Europe, New Zealand and two New South Wales estuaries, has prompted many of South Australia’s oyster farmers to change their license so they can grow angasis too.
“[POMS] is probably the number one worry in the oyster industry as a whole,” Kangaroo Island’s largest Pacific oyster grower Ken Rowe said.
“In South Australia we’d like to think that maybe we wouldn’t get it but we’d be silly to not plan for it.”
Mr Rowe is among the growers branching out into the native oyster, which is immune to POMS.
He recently picked up his angasi spat – baby oysters – from the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI).
The institute has set up a small hatchery to help the fledgling industry, as most commercial oyster hatcheries do not produce angasi juveniles.
Unlike the Pacific oyster industry, there has not been much of a breeding program for angasis so one of the biggest challenges is to produce oysters that grow at the same rate.
They need a gentler touch when they are younger too.
“The angasi spat is more sensitive than the Pacific oyster because they have a thinner shell,” SARDI scientist Professor Xiaoxu Li said.
Mr Guidera, who has been farming angasi oysters for seven years, says there is also plenty to learn about how to grow them properly.
“In about 2007 we got about 10,000 oysters and a week later we’d killed half of them just by treating them exactly the same way as we’d treat a Pacific oyster,” he said.
He has also tried farming them on the sea floor, where they naturally live.
“We did an experiment last year with that and then we noticed two weeks later stingrays had eaten nearly all of them,” he said.
Angasis can take twice as long to grow than Pacifics and traditionally have a poorer survival rate.
They are also susceptible to a parasite called bonamia.
But the South Australian Oyster Growers Association says their potential to earn premium prices and reduce the threat of disease make angasis a worthwhile investment.
“POMS has been the catalyst for us to think about diversifying,” the association’s president Jill Coates said.
“The market tells us that there’s a good opportunity. The supply isn’t there, so the time is right really.”
For more on this watch Landline on Sunday at noon on ABC 1.