Project Oyster Shell
PRESS RELEASE - Aquaculture New Zealand Magazine - March 2012
In the good times, the Waikare Inlet produced about 1 million dozen oysters per season.
Ben Warren was one of 24 marine farmers, working 59 hectares of leases, employing 60 people in a proud local industry.
Then the tide turned. Bad.
Human effluent from a land-based source leached into the water ways, carrying traces of Norovirus that effectively crippled the industry with a decade-long harvesting ban.
Court cases followed, jobs were lost and farmers went to the wall.
By late 2009 the water quality in the Inlet had improved.
When the harvesting ban was lifted 30 hectares of farms had rotted to rack and ruin with 25000m3 of shell piled up on the seabed.
But now the tide is turning again and this time it’s all good.
The black sheep of New Zealand’s oyster family is set to become the white knight, by turning a decade of waste into a new revenue stream and setting a precedent for a zerowaste industry.
‘Project Oyster Shell’, as it’s officially known, is a $3.8 million joint venture between central and local government, Enterprise Northland and oyster farmers to clean up the farms, recycle and sell the waste timber and shells, and clear the way for the region to return to full production within five years.
“It feels like this is the dawn of a new era,” Ben said.
“It’s been the black sheep of the industry for the last 10 years because it’s always been closed.
“This will allow farmers to completely rebuild farms and get back into business, providing jobs locally and further afield in terms of packing etc.
“It includes research to uncover the different products that can be made from the shells themselves…to take it from a waste to something that’s worth something.
“And the main benefits, it’s going to make oysters a zero waste industry.”
The three-year, multi-agency project began with plans to use the shells as a lime source for concrete, after Enterprise Northland Trust’s Dr Jacquie Reed set out to find a solution that would mend council-industry relationships, as well as providing a stimulus to the local industry.
“We realised we had a big problem … and it would be unfair to come in and demand immediate compliance of farms considering they’d had no income for 10 years,” Dr Reed said.
“They’d had such a bad experience we sat down and thought ‘how can we assist them?’.
“There’s 25000m3 of waste shell – can we sell it?”
Tests showed they could sell it – the big question became what could they sell it for?
The high-quality of the compounds present in the shells made them rethink the concrete strategy and initiate two Ministry of Science and Innovation funded research projects to develop high-value products suitable for export.
While Dr Reed said the details were confidential, she was optimistic about their potential.
“If this works out at the end of the project, the income from the shells could be a selfsustaining business of its own,” she said.
“Potentially, they could end up getting more money for the shell than for the meat.
“There’s a long way to go but we’re working towards developing a zero waste industry up here for oysters.”
The recycling component of the project secured $2.1 million of funding under the government’s Waste Minimisation Fund, while MAF, Northland Regional Council, Far North Holdings and local oyster farmers are supplying the remaining funds, equipment and time to actually remove the materials from the farms.
Preliminary works began in October, and the project is about to move into full swing with the removal of all waste timber, the building of a reclamation area to process materials, and trial shell removals to be completed within the first year.
Timber that has been preserved under the mud is likely to be re-used in terrestrial farming and the remainder will be reused in another new initiative being investigated with an Auckland-based company.
“The final details are being confirmed but we’re engaged with a company who’s looking at reusing the wood in a way that meets the strict environmental standards of the Waste Minimisation Fund,” Dr Reed said.
When work begins, one of Ben’s farms will need 2 hectares cleaned up.
“All the farmers put years and years into their farms and have an emotional attachment to their piece of water.
“It was heartbreaking to see the farms go to rack and ruin.
“It was quite possible it would never re-open, and farmers couldn’t afford to keep throwing money at it.
“Everyone had limited funds with no certainty.
“Most farmers have gone off to find other jobs just to make ends meet.”
However Project Oyster Shell has the potential to help get the Waikare Inlet up to full speed again.
“Farmers are ready for this,” Ben said.
“Everyone’s involved and with it 100 per cent.
“It’s going to take a while.
“We’re looking at 5-7 years to get back into full production.”
Dr Reed agrees it’s the engagement of all parties that has already made this project a winner.
“The worth here is not just economic benefit or environmental gain from a zero waste industry,” she said.
“It’s about community.
“This project will redevelop trust between authorities and oyster famers, giving them a sense of pride, improving well being and