A collaboration between university researchers and Manning River oyster farmers has resulted in highly improved practices for safe oyster harvesting in a boost for the industry.
Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) were aided by local oyster farmers in an extensive data collection project that has resulted in highly improved real-time water monitoring to ensure safe oyster harvesting.
According to Research Fellow at UTS's Seafood Safety Group, Dr Penelope Ajani, the research seeks to prolong the harvesting season and increase yields for farmers, supplying more Australian oysters to market
"Our research aims to help oyster farms stay open for longer, harvest more oysters, supply more regularly to customers and increase their revenue," Dr Ajani said.
"Following months of devastating floods, we hope this will come as welcome news."
The breakthrough research has demonstrated that real-time monitoring of salinity and water temperature provides a faster and more accurate way to test water quality in oyster farms than the rainfall-based management system that oyster farmers currently use.
Oyster farmers, acting as citizen scientists, took over 8000 water samples and 4000 oyster samples from 100 farms, every two weeks, for over two years. This makes it the largest dataset of water quality and health measurements from oyster-producing estuaries in the world.- Research Fellow at UTS's Seafood Safety Group, Dr Penelope Ajani
Croki oyster farmers, Ian and Rose Crisp were involved in the "citizen science" project and say it was a big but worthwhile commitment, particularly now the results are in.
"Anything we can do to extend our harvest time safely, that is more efficient and competitive, then obviously, we want to try it," Mr Crisp said.
"The project has changed the way we manage our oyster farms.
"We now use salinity meters to make decisions on whether we work oysters or move oysters into a particular area."
The project started in 2016 when the team deployed real-time sensors into 13 estuaries up and down the coast. They predicted that salinity would be a faster predictor of bacteria in the water and rallied key collaborators to join the team, including the NSW DPI and the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).
"But absolutely central to the success of the project were the frontline workers in the oyster industry itself," Dr Ajani said.
"Oyster farmers, acting as citizen scientists, took over 8000 water samples and 4000 oyster samples from 100 farms, every two weeks, for over two years. This makes it the largest dataset of water quality and health measurements from oyster-producing estuaries in the world."
The research was a success. In 87 per cent of the models they ran, they demonstrated that salinity is much better than rainfall at predicting potentially dangerous bacteria, such as e-coli, and harmful algae in the water at both a farm and estuary level.
Next steps include a move towards national adoption and investing in new technologies such as mobile apps, to help farmers use the technology, and developing rapid 'self-serve' PCR tests for farmers to detect harmful algae and e-coli on site.
"Aquaculture is one of the biggest growing food industries in the world because it's often more sustainable and less intrusive than agriculture," Dr Ajani said.
"I'm particularly interested in it because it may well prove to be one of the prime ways we are able to feed the world as we move into the future."
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