With the depletion of natural oyster beds through dredging, attempts began to farm the Sydney Rock Oyster. According to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry, commercial oyster farming began when the first ponds were established in Gwawley Bay, on the George River, by Thomas Holt in 1872. Other sources date his first attempts to 1866.
The discovery of large middens of discarded oyster shells is evidence that aboriginal people had always eaten Australia’s native oysters. There are two main indigenous species – the Sydney rock oyster which occurs in warmer waters and the Angasi or flat oyster which prefers colder temperatures.
In the first century of European settlement, oysters were not regarded as a luxury but were sold cheaply as a food of the common man. In the early days, oysters were not only used for food. The beds were dredged for the shells, which were burnt and ground to produce lime for building. Although legislation eventually banned this practice, the natural beds were effectively destroyed by the mid-1860s.
Early attempts at oyster farming using a French method of canals were unsuccessful. The silt that formed in the canals harboured mudworms that bored into the shells, destroying the oysters. New methods used raised stones, beds or stakes to lift the oysters above the sea bed in inter-tidal zones where the water flow prevented silting. Oyster leasing was introduced in 1880.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the oyster saloon or oyster parlour was the equivalent of the fish and chip shop. Many of these establishments were run by immigrant families – particularly Greeks. The Comino (Kominos) family (originally from the island of Kythera) opened oyster parlours in Sydney and elsewhere in New South Wales, and John Comino actively promoted the opportunities to new immigrants.
Oyster farming using the introduced Pacific oyster began in Tasmania in the 1960s and in South Australia in the 1970s. The species was illegally introduced to Port Stephens in 1984 and threatens the survival of the Sydney rock oyster in NSW. The Sydney rock oyster is currently farmed in New South Wales, southern Queensland and Albany in Western Australia. Pacific oysters are produced in Tasmania, South Australia and Port Stephens, where they have now been legalised. Flat oysters are farmed on the south coast of New South Wales. Recently, a new Western Australian venture has brought a third variety, the Akoya or pearl oyster to the market.