Oyster farmers shucked
By CRAIG McTEAR
MICK Swanston reckons if pollution in the Bellinger River is bad enough to shut down the oyster industry, fishing and swimming might not be safe, either. The Raleigh oyster farmer was under the impression water quality was improving, but a NSW Food Authority ban on oyster harvesting from the river would appear to indicate otherwise. The ban was imposed last week following test results which, according to NSW Food Authority spokesman Adrian Bradley, showed 'very, very high' readings of E. coli in the water. He said the contamination seemed to come from cows, and possibly septic tanks, and that it wasn't the first time the river had been closed because of this issue. "We are trying to resolve the problem with other agencies, but until such time as the water quality improves, we won't allow harvesting. No-one wants to get sick from oysters," Mr Bradley said. He said the Food Authority would conduct ongoing testing, and was also monitoring the nearby Kalang River for any problems. The Bellinger has two oyster farms, one of which is owned by Mick Swanston and his brother-in-law, Mark White. Their business is worth about $70,000 to them annually, but now they worry about what the future has in store for them and their families. Mick says they've got plenty of top quality oysters at the moment, and that 800 dozen were ready to go to Sydney this Wednesday. But the ban, which he described as 'knee-jerk', means they can't sell anything which comes from their farm. The Food Authority maintains the most recent tests were last Tuesday, resulting in an immediate closure, but Mick claims the ban is based on figures from June last year, just before he took the farm over. He said farmers had not taken oysters from the river for much of this year anyway due to flooding, but conditions had just started to come good again. He and his brother-in-law are now investigating ways of getting around the closure ? using a farm in another river, growing oysters to only half their size, or purifying their oysters with Kalang River water. Mick said if there was such a big problem with contamination in the Bellinger River, the solution was to 'get it cleaned up'. "Let's spend the money on doing a survey to find out what's wrong with it," he said. He's prepared to work alongside agencies to find answers which will ensure the health of the river, and the subsequent viability of his industry.