• A favourite food for thousands of years. (Alan Benson)Source: Alan Benson
The enjoyment of oysters in Australia reaches back for thousands of years.
Signe Dean

27 Mar 2017 - 10:04 AM  UPDATED 27 Mar 2017 - 11:45 AM

Arrive at a fancy function in Sydney, and a tray of freshly shucked, plump oysters will travel past your nose in no time. These days it’s delicious fare often washed down with a glass of bubbly, but Australian history of oysters stretches back much further than you may realise.

Sydney rock oysters (Saccostrea glomerata) are native to the eastern coast of our continent, and along with their cousins, the flat Angasi oysters (Ostrea angasi), were a substantial resource for Indigenous peoples in coastal regions. New South Wales coast is dotted with ancient sites that attest to thousands of years of shellfish collection.

These sites are called middens – places where Indigenous communities left the remains of their meals, depositing things like oyster shells. Sometimes these remains would pile up for generations, creating a midden several metres deep. Coming across a fresh midden pile would indicate to others which resources had been recently harvested for food, so that new arrivals could choose something else to eat and not deplete the resource too much.

“Wild-caught oysters were hugely important for Aboriginal people,” says Kate Barclay who researches the social aspects of fisheries at the University of Technology Sydney. She explains that oysters were collected not just for food, but their shells were also useful in tool-making.

Barclay is the lead author of a recent report on the social and economic value of aquaculture in coastal NSW, commissioned by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. Amongst observations about the value of aquaculture to local people, the report also stresses the role of Indigenous heritage.

After all, Australian aquaculture dates back thousands of years. Evidence of eel and fish traps around Lake Condah in Victoria shows the Gunditjmara people in the region lived in stone huts and farmed eels some 8,000 years before European arrival. It’s the oldest land-based aquaculture endeavour found on our continent.

Oyster farming has a pedigree as well. It started back in the 1870s with oyster cultivation in the Georges River south-west of Sydney. For more than a century it’s remained the most valuable NSW aquaculture industry; it produces over 106 million oysters each year, their total value exceeding $35 million.

Indigenous coastal communities played a vital role in the establishment of this lucrative seafood business. 

“Aboriginal people were involved from the earliest days in the culture of growing oysters, helping to identify the areas as well as working on building oyster farms,” explains Barclay.

“The area around Port Stephens became the epicentre of oyster production in the 20th century, and there were lots of Aboriginal people involved, mainly as employees, at the oyster farms [in the area].”

In fact, that legacy is continued by AJN Oysters, an enterprise run by Nicola and Ross Manton. They operate at the Jigamy Farm property, which is managed by Twofold Aboriginal Corporation on the picturesque shores of Pambula Lake in south-eastern NSW.

“After working for other people in the white community, we thought we could give it a go ourselves – we had the knowledge on how to do things, the experience,” says Ross Manton, a Worimi man whose farm, albeit relatively small, has been thriving for the past decade. 

However, the Manton family business is a rare example of an actual Indigenous-owned oyster farm. According to Kate Barclay, regulations around establishing an aquaculture business are complex, and farms are also technically complicated to set up and run, which can make it harder for disadvantaged communities to get started. The Mantons didn’t seek government support when starting out.

“[We wanted] to give an Aboriginal example: that an uneducated person can come into business and qualify for themselves,” says Manton.

In the Northern Territory, trials are underway to actively involve remote Indigenous communities in aquaculture, including the farming of tropical oysters. Meanwhile the 2016 Sustainable Aquaculture Strategy for the NSW oyster industry has recommendations for ‘responsible oyster farmers’, calling for preservation of Indigenous heritage values and employment of Indigenous people.

However, according to Kate Barclay, there are no clear statistics on Indigenous employment in the aquaculture industry. Hence, in her team’s report, gathering data on Aboriginal involvement in NSW aquaculture is amongst priority recommendations.

“It would be great to have aquaculture businesses in these coastal areas, people can work on the Country, it's nutritious food provision, it's culturally important and would improve wellbeing,” says Barclay.

Ross Manton agrees that it would “be interesting” to find out more data about Indigenous employment in NSW aquaculture. He also emphasises the role businesses can play by investing back in the local community, which includes giving employment to Aboriginal people. To him, a vital part in helping disadvantaged communities are outreach programs to local schools.

“They have to have that chance,” says Manton. “I think some families – not all – are just not getting that education because they feel unworthy at school, they feel like second-class citizens and that's it.”

“That's what we're trying to do at the moment, build the kids up so they want to be skilled and properly educated."

Image of man harvesting oysters via State Library of NSW. Oyster fishing engraving via State Library of Victoria

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Oyster recipes
Steamed oysters with tomato, chilli and coriander salsa

This is based on a celebratory, muck-in style ‘oyster roast’ from the US, which can be done on the beach in boardies, or at a wedding, and every occasion in between. The trick is to warm the oysters without roasting them open. I like them with this tomato, chilli and coriander salsa, but you can serve them with Tabasco or any other condiments of your choice. You’ll need a decent amount of hessian or similar sturdy cloth that you don’t mind ruining, and an oyster knife.

Hot oysters in creamy beurre blanc sauce

The classic French beurre blanc, or ‘white butter’, sauce is a long-time friend of seafood. In this recipe, it is mixed with lightly sautéed vegetables and piled onto oven-baked oysters to make an impressive seafood party starter.