THE oyster farming industry on the Richmond River is on the verge of collapse with the four remaining lease-holders close to quitting following continual oyster kills and thefts.
The latest kill struck last month wiping out most oysters in the main river at Ballina and up to 90 per cent in North Creek.
A spokesman for NSW Industry and Investment said investigations into the latest kill were continuing, but it was still too early to determine the exact cause.
Dennis McCarthy, who has held leases on the river for more than 20 years, said the latest kill had hit him hard, completely wiping out this year’s harvest.
“I’ll be giving it away after this,” he said.
“We only lost 30,000 this year because we haven’t recovered from the last two kills, where we lost 180,000 each time. That really hurt.”
Mr McCarthy’s situation mirrors those of fellow farmers Ian and Matthew Cardow, Ray Hunt and Geoff Lawler.
Mr Hunt confirmed he was winding back operations, saying it just wasn’t worth it any more.
“Oysters are a filter and an indication of the health of the river – we keep asking the politicians for help, but they just keep walking away from it,” he said.
Mr Cardow said the kills were almost annual events that were threatening his viability.
“Just a little support from Fisheries and the councils would go a long way,” he said.
Mr Lawler, from Steinhart Oysters, said it was doubly tough for oyster farmers today with a wave of brazen thefts also crippling their productivity. Thieves on the Tweed made off with $50,000 worth of oysters just last month.
"It’s heart-breaking,” Mr Lawler said.
“If you survive the kills the bastards come along and steal all your big oysters.
“We’re losing an ecologically sustainable industry on the Richmond River while we’ve waited 18 years for an estuary management plan to be implemented.
“Since they’ve implemented a management plan on the Tweed kills appear to have been considerably reduced.”
Richmond River County Council floodplain service manager Michael Woods said their estuary management plan had taken longer than other LGAs as the river crossed through three local government areas and had the biggest floodplain on the NSW coast.
He said the plan was ready, but now needed to be funded and implemented.
“We don’t want this plan sitting on a shelf, but it won’t get done with goodwill alone,” he said.
“The community must take ownership of the river. It’s our asset and we must look after it.”