Bluff Oysters & Oystering

Some say that Bluff oysters are the finest in the world. They are grown slowly in the cold clean waters of the Foveaux Strait. In season, (March till about August) they are dredged by Bluffs oyster fleet.

Oystering first began commercially at Stewart Island in the 1860s. Coastal cutters were simply beached on the beds at high tide and the oysters shovelled aboard as the tide dropped. The catch was transported in the shell to the mainland and right from the outset demand was so high that within a few years the beds were exhausted. Depleting beds caused the closure of the harvesting in 1877. In 1879 new larger beds were discovered in deeper water and the centre of activity gradually shifted from Stewart Island to Bluff.

bluff oystersAlthough commonly known as the Bluff oyster, it is known by others names, including mud oyster, flat oyster, dredge oyster, Foveaux Strait oyster and deep water oyster.The species is actually found throughout New Zealand, but is most common in the south.

A quota system was introduced in 1963, the twelve oyster boats then engaged in the industry being set a limit of 170,000 sacks per season (each sack containing, on average, 800 oysters). The quota was progressively reduced until in 1970 with 23 boats operating, it was 115,000 or 5000 per boat (in eating terms that equates to two dozen oysters for every man, woman and child in the country). Seasons were relatively good until the 1986/87 season when the beds were struck by the parasitic protozoan Bonamia. This caused the oysters to become watery and black. Because of the Bonamia the season was ceased in 1991 and did not reopen until 1994 with a limited quota and fewer boats. Fortunately the oyster populations have been recovering, and quotas are gradually being increased.

When oystering first began it was a race to get the first oysters back to the wharf. Today some boats are met by helicopters who whisk the oysters away to be distributed throughout the country.

Perhaps the best time to visit and taste our oysters is when we hold our famous Bluff Oyster and Food Festival, usually the last weekend in May.

Fresh Oysters are available in season at the 4Square Supermarket in Gore Street, and at Fowlers Oysters – on the left as you approach Bluff on State Highway 1.