The Rise And Fall Of Oysters
B/W Photo George Barclay surveying oyster trays in Yamba Bay, 1920s.
In the early days of European settlement, oysters were not regarded as a luxury but were sold cheaply as they were plentiful in Lake Wooloweyah. They were harvested by a scoop like dredge along the mud flats. Although this practice was eventually banned, the natural beds were effectively destroyed. After a petition from the Oyster Dredgers and residents the industry was regulated and leases of 10-15 years were introduced in the mid 1880s. In 1903 the Fisheries Board introduced a £20 fine for taking oysters away from the training walls. However, oysters were allowed to be eaten in situ – a popular pastime for visitors, although there were regular cases prosecuted for stealing oysters.
Along Oyster Channel in the late 19th century there were about a dozen houses occupied by the oystermen and their families, and some 300 bags of oysters were shipped from the lake each week. An oyster saloon, the equivalent of the fish and chip shop, opened next to the Yamba Hotel on Wooli Street, Yamba in 1906.
The large mounds of oyster shells found along the lake foreshore were subsequently ‘quarried’ and either burnt to produce lime or crushed and used to build river embankments, to surface local roads and even as house render.
Early attempts at oyster farming were unsuccessful due to floods and mud-worms boring into the shells killing the oysters. New methods used raised frames to lift the oysters above the seabed. Controlled oyster farming was introduced in 1923 but all leases ceased in 1929. By the late 1940s farms had dwindled from 120 to just two or three. Theft remained a problem.
Fred Phillips began oyster farming in 1946 and went on to win multiple awards over several years for the quality of his oysters, both bottled and in the shell. His son Trevor carried on the family business under the name, “Big River Oyster”, located near the current boat ramp on Yamba Road, now owned by Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-Operative. Another producer, Walter Marr, also earned high praise for Clarence oysters after sending oysters in the shell to both Winston Churchill and to the Queen.
The 1956 floods again devastated the oyster culture industry. Subsequent floods and disease meant that local oyster farming was no longer viable. However oysters remained on local menus. Gorman’s Big Oyster Restaurant was opened on Hickey Island in 1984 but closed in 2014.
Oysters have played a large part in the history of Yamba, being used by local Aboriginal communities as both a food source and the shells as cutting tools and fishhooks. Names such as Oyster Channel and Oyster Cove have survived and the remnants of old oyster frames can be seen at low tide alongside the Calypso Caravan park.