Oyster-Picking Industry around Kaikoura Island and FitzRoy Harbour

At the end of the court-case, the judge, being a fair man and having the wisdom of Solomon, awarded the protagonists one half of the oyster’s shell each and thanked them both for the fleshy delight within, the taste of which he pronounced ‘delicious!’…which is some indication I suppose, of what’s important, and what’s not. Something that is of definite importance, however, is the fact of an entire oyster-picking industry around the western side of the Barrier being substantially absent from the historical records apart from a brief mention in passing here and there. For those involved at the time though, good money was to be had if one had the stamina and expertise to contract to supply at least two and a half dozen large sacks of live oysters weekly for several weeks until the season ended toward mid-winter when the crayfishing season started. The lines of rocks put in place to capture and on-grow wild spat are still visible in some parts of the FitzRoy Harbour today, – the only reminder of a significant industry in the island’s past, – and represent one of the earliest attempts at oyster aquaculture in New Zealand.

My initial interest came about by accident, with an enquiry wanting to know where Oyster Island was. (It’s a tiny island 2nm north of Kaikoura Island, between Nagle Cove and Mohunga Bay). As a result, in mid-August, 2002, I talked to the late George Mason, the late Garth Cooper and Pat Cooper as well as an ex-Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries oyster scientist, Les Curtin, about the history of this industry on the island. Shannon Robertson, a mussel farmer of FitzRoy, kindly supplied me with a copy of an old Marine Department chart of Area XVI showing the 25 numbered and marked oyster-bed sections or areas running from Oneura Bay (also called Red Cliff Cove) just south of Man O’ War Passage, including all the shores of FitzRoy Harbour and inner Kaikoura Island, and around the coast as far as Nagles Cove. (I should mention that these shellfish were the native rock oysters, Saxostrea glomerata, and not the Japanese oysters introduced somehow in the 1970s that predominate at least in the more brackish areas today. The native rock oyster lasts much longer in the shell than the Japanese Oyster, but doesn’t grow as big or as fast. Both species’ spat swim about for three weeks before settling.

‘Evening Post, 5th August, 1908, page 8’.

The Marine Department were the employers (since 1908 when 11,000 sacks from the Hauraki Gulf and Northland sold at 12/6d), and a lump sum payment was in cash at the end of the season – George recalled a £2000 payment as normal, “It was good money! And the only income for some” he said. “Pickers were on contract to supply 30 sacks per week for the Auckland market, and if a picker couldn’t get 30 sacks a week he wasn’t employed for long.” He recalled that there were 3 or 4 pickers when it ended in 1939. These included Garth Cooper, then a 15 year old, George being 21 and having picked since about the same age.

A typical day would start when the outgoing tide was half out. Pickers, sometimes in rubber thigh-waders, would use a bizarre variety of picks (for different rock types) to prise off the oysters into four-gallon (18 litre) kerosene tins through to when the tide came half way in again. It was hard on the hands. The pick handles were about 15 inches (37.5cm) long with a double-ended 10-11 inch (25-27cm) tempered iron head. The late Bob Whistler, a blacksmith, used to repair and temper oyster picks for the pickers.

The sacks were large Chelsea Sugar Company bags that held 5 x 4-gallon kero tins of oysters. These were supplied by whomever was the Fisheries Inspector and chief picker at the time.
Selected sections were picked clean every three years. No clumps of more than three shellfish were acceptable, and the oysters had to be washed clean of mud. Full sacks, tied and tagged with the picker’s number or name were left at high tide to be collected by punt back to one of the Paddisons’ vessels ANZAC or Maquini (30-40 ft wooden launches). A hand winch was used to load them onto the FitzRoy wharf where they stayed sometimes a few days but “at times as long as 10 days to two weeks” said Garth, until vessels such as the Northern Steam Ship Company’s Kawau, Hauiti or Claymore carried them to Auckland.

George said it was common when the tide was getting up for four or five large snapper to be in around the pickers’ legs getting morsels of oysters and other titbits loosened in the process. A quick spike with the pick secured dinner for the evening, the smaller snapper being preferred.

Don Armitage.