From Wynnum Manly historical society. Cheers Ray
Southern Queensland Oyster Industry
Summary of Paper presented by Glen S Smith at RHSQ meeng 22 October 1981.
The oyster industry ourished from the 1870’s to around 1920, peaking at the turn of the centaury and declining
from 1910. The edible Sydney Rock oyster (Saccostrea commercialis) was found on the wide inter-dal ats in
southern Qld. At that me oyster shing was the most organized of the shing industries. In 1891 21,000 sacks of
oysters worth £29,100 were exported from southern Queensland to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
1824 – 1863 (Oyster Act)
From rst European selement in 1824 the oyster beds were over-exploited and decimated. There was no licens-
ing, regulaon or control. Everyone helped themselves. Most exploitaon was not for food but for the producon
of lime to make mortar to construct the houses and buildings of early Brisbane
Aenon was drawn to the wasteful pracce of lime burning and on 22 September 1863 a Bill was introduced to
the Legislave Assembly for the protecon of oysters. Penales for burning live oysters were either a ne of up to
£10, or imprisonment for up to 3 months. Oyster gatherers had a fee of £5 to lay down oysters on dened oyster
Dredge oysters were found in the mid 1860’s below low de and collected by means of a dredging basket aached
to a boat. The oysters were larger, tasted beer and brought top prices.
There was a realisaon that the 1863 Act did not give enough protecon.. Very large quanes of oysters were
being exported to southern markets and the dredge beds were being dredged out. A closed season was suggested.
A more comprehensive Act was introduced concerning the leasing of the oyster beds. In 1874 the rst aucon of
dredge secons was held in Brisbane providing revenue to the Government. By 1884 Moreton Bay was divided into
39 secons, extending to 2’below low water mark. The leases ran for a 7-year term with an annual fee of ve
Moreton Bay Oyster Company was founded on 11 August 1876 and was the largest company in the Queensland
oyster industry unl the 1920’s. Premiers Sir Arthur Hunter Palmer and Sir Thomas McIlwraith were shareholders.
However the 1874 Bill was inadequate. Lease me of 7 years was too short. . In 1882 Captain C S Fison dues in-
cluded being Inspector of Oyster Fisheries. But he spent considerable me administering the expanding oyster in-
dustry, from the NSW border to Noosa. He presented the rst oyster report in 1884. His reports were used for the
framework for the 1886 Oyster Act.
By 1886 there were 178 oyster banks covering 5000 acres with as average of 70 acres per lease. It was felt that the
1874 Act needed updang to remedy the praccal administraon defects of the old Act. The Act of 1886 saw 14-
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year dredge leases. There was a reward for persons discovering new dredge oyster beds. Oysters had to measure
5cm to prevent banks being stripped of the small oysters. NSW did not put any restricons of the collecon of oys-
ters unl 1868, ve years aer Queensland, so their beds were in poor shape.
Moreton Bay was used for maturing and faening the young oysters from the northern spat catching beds of the
great Sandy Strait region. Here in Moreton Bay the oysters grew more rapidly and developed a beer shape than if
allowed to remain in the northern beds. In 1905 the coastal steamer “Lady Lamington” carted14,000 sacks of cul-
ture down to Moreton Bay for re-laying where 12-18 months’ growth produced oysters in prime condion.
On 13 April 1889, to encourage the blossoming industry, 26 reserves for oystermen were gazeed around Moreton
Bay, ranging from 5 acres to 40 acres. Oystermen were allowed to camp, build houses and fence-in small allot-
ments, so long as they paid their annual licence. Prior to this many unocial camp sites had existed. A small school
was established in 1890 at Currigee on Stradbroke Island and some me later a second school at Coombabah, 11
kilometers north of Southport.. These were the two largest camps and were composed mainly of Aborigines and
coloured employees of the Moreton Bay Oyster Company.
Disease brings disaster
Mud worm disease rst appeared about 1880 in oysters in the Hunter River of NSW. If the Sydney markets were
glued, NZ oysters were stored in the Hunter River to keep them fresh, unl prices rose again. This storage was
thought to be the source of the disease.
The disease was rst noced in southern Queensland in 1895 on the banks at the mouth of the Coomera River in
the lower inter dal and dredge secons. The disease, caused by a small red worm, is harmless to man but made
aected oysters unacceptable. The disease spread rapidly through southern Moreton Bay and by 1899 the number
of secons had dropped from 36 to 18 and the number of banks from 421 to 292. Over one hundred banks were
closed temporarily. Many men were thrown out of work
By 1903 the industry was relavely sound again and by 1905 the southern part of Moreton, in the Broadwater, was
almost free of the disease and relaying of oysters into the secons was resumed. Pumicestone passage at this me
was suering badly from the eects of the disease, which was not dispersed unl 1925. The disease never went
further north that the Maroochy River. Oyster men became very cauous in their operaons and largely aban-
doned the dredge secons which were more suscepble to worm infestaon.
Mud worms were not the only detriment to the oyster industry. Various oods such as that in 1893, destroyed
whole oyster beds, as de levels and currents were altered. Similarly the breakthrough at Jumpinpin on Stradbroke
Island in May 1898 disrupted the industry.
During the decade from 1901 – 1910 the industry reached its peak for the number of men employed banks leased
and boats licensed. The greatest part of producon came from the banks. Dredge oysters comprised only 20%.
The value of the shery was around £12,000 per annum excluding local consumpon and about £2,000 was collect-
ed in Government licenses and rental fees.
From 1910 there was a gradual decline. No single cause could be idened. In 1913 a ve-man Treasury Depart-
ment commiee was set up to report on the industry and to redra legislaon.. But measures introduced were too
late to help the ailing industry.
Mud worm disease had de-stabilised the industry. Pests, disease, predators, compeon form NZ markets and
man’s mistakes all contributed. Oyster thes were a major problem in some areas. Oystermen thieved from each
other’s beds. The public helped themselves!. There were few inspectors. Occasional nes had lile eect. Oyster
men were recent to expend money on oyster banks over which they could not keep a watch. Large companies
aempted to monopolise the industry to force out the smaller growers.
By 1936 Qld was imporng NSW oysters, this being a major contributor to the decline of the Qld industry.
Today Qld oyster producon is only 1/10 of that produced in the peak years. The majority of oyster bank licenses
are now employed on a part me basis. Oyster operaons are restricted in Tourist areas and near sewage oualls.
Apart from the occasional place named aer an oysterman, the remnants of some oyster camps and a few old
men’s memories lile remains of the once thriving industry.