The Southeast Queensland oyster industry has been rocked by a series of organised thefts from leases off Stradbroke Island that have devastated the livelihoods of farmers for a second year running.
The Queensland Oyster Growers Association (QOGA) says more than 12,000 oysters have been stolen in the latest raid which it describes as ‘well planned’ and highly executed’.
It comes amid renewed investment activity in the local industry that QOGA says is being aided by state government initiatives to grow the sector ahead of the Olympic Games.
With farmers having to wait three years for oysters to mature, the thefts have come after several challenging years for the industry which was hit hard by COVID and then floods that impacted leases in 2022.
“These thefts have devasted our community at a time when many growers saw light at the end of the tunnel following large stock losses from QX disease and reduced sales during COVID,” says Professor Andrew James Robson, the QOGA president.
“The high quality of the oysters, complemented by very high market prices meant that this harvest would have seen growers be in a position to start the recovery process and have the funds to reinvest in stock and infrastructure,” says Robson, owner-operator of Kooringal Oysters on Moreton Island.
“Sadly, they are once again having to start over. The impact of these thefts on the growers and their families cannot be underestimated.”
The scale of theft in a single night during the peak selling season has prompted speculation that the culprits are highly organised and have experience in the oyster industry.
The thieves are said to be using commercial-scale watercraft to empty oyster baskets with the latest theft said to total about 1.5 tonnes of oysters.
“You can’t just harvest and store 1,000 dozen oysters on a dinghy,” says Robson.
“This was a well-planned and highly executed robbery and the fact that it has happened for the second year in a row is extremely concerning.
“They must know oyster set-up, they must know the leases, the baskets and how to look for good quality sized oysters and they have to be able to carry it off the lease on a barge, not in a normal boat.”
Robson says the thefts come amid a shortage of rock oysters with the NSW harvest also impacted by floods and QX disease, a condition that decimates oyster populations but is not harmful to humans.
“The market value of rock oysters has doubled in the last 18 months,” Robson tells Business News Australia.
The southeast Queensland oyster industry is quite small compared to other growing regions in Australia with annual wholesale production of about $500,000 compared with $52 million in NSW.
However, the thefts come at a critical time for the southeast Queensland industry which Robson says is gearing up for rapid growth over the next few years.
“In the last 18 months we have seen extensive interest and investment in the industry, as well as communication between the state government which wants to see the local industry grow and our local product being sold during the Olympics,” he says.
“There’s a lot of positive energy in the industry with massive growth potential and I can see us getting into the tens of millions of dollars in the next few years.”
The thefts have raised many concerns for the sector, including investment security and the risk of reputational harm.
“One of the issues is the potential risk to public health if these stolen oysters aren’t handled appropriately which in turn can damage the reputation of Queensland oysters,” says Robson.
To combat the risk of theft, QOGA is seeking to establish high-tech surveillance systems for key oyster leases across the region.
Thieves risk criminal prosecution and fines of up to $77,400 for the removal of oysters from a commercial lease without permission.
“If you see any unusual activity on commercial oyster leases such as non-commercial looking boats and jet skis removing oyster bags, or you notice oysters suddenly for sale from unusual retailers at reduced prices then please contact the police on 131 444 or crime stoppers on 1800 333 000," says Robson.
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