South Africa

Slim pickings for Garden Route’s Oyster hunters

One hundred years ago, Knysna Oyster Club president AH “Swannie” Swan said that, when he felt peckish, he “would start with ten score (200) and, when no-one was looking, would eat a hundred more!”

History does not record how Swannie’s wife, girlfriend or significant other felt about his prodigious consumption of the mollusc – especially given what we know now about its proven aphrodisiac powers – but the “Knysna” oyster’s popularity has not waned over the intervening century.

The Knysna Oyster Festival

Next month (21-30 June) sees staging of the 41st Knysna Oyster Festival and there will be interesting additions to local menus, says Elizabeth Vertue of Quartet of Cuisines, which includes some of the Garden Route’s most popular restaurants, among them an oyster “roast”.

But while visitors to the coastal town will be able to feast to their hearts’ content, the region’s long time oyster gatherers have been having a tougher time.

Oyster Club
DAYS GONE BY: 1924 Knysna Oyster Club – the chaps who considered themselves experts in all things mollusc. Picture Supplied

The only good news for them is that the ongoing prohibition against off-shore oil and gas prospecting will keep Cape rock oysters sleeping soundly in their beds for the time being.

These beds stretch from Cape Agulhas almost to Gqeberha and, along with all other marine life along that stretch of coastlines, they were threatened with destruction by seismic blasting.

Marine scientists say this entails sending out sonic shockwaves “every four to 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Surveys can last weeks or months and cover thousands of square kilometres of ocean.”

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The community

There are seven marine protected areas that could be directly affected.

The survey ban was initially won last December but is, however, a bitter-sweet victory for the pickers, most of whom are from the Smutsville community in nearby Sedgefield.

Rachel Daniels, 60, Elizabeth van Rooyen, 65, Susan Avery, 71, and Mingo Jacobs, 64, are the latest in a long line of family members to scour the rocky shorelines of the Indian Ocean in search of the succulent crassotrea margaritacia shellfish for which Knysna is known.

Oysters employee
A PRO: Marlouise Stevens from Knysna restaurant 34 Degrees South is an expert oyster shucker.

(Most of the countless thousands of oysters consumed during the annual festival are cultivated along the West Coast around Saldanha: demand far exceeds local supply. They are much smaller and exceptionally creamy but, according to experts, their flavour lacks the character of those harvested from the open sea.)

Naturally it would seem the plucky pickers make a good living. Not so, apparently.

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A costly exercise

Their licences, which cost them R1 100 a year, stipulate that each picker can harvest as many oysters that they themselves can carry off the beach each day.

This could be as many as 200 that are delivered daily to Quartet of Cuisines; Ms Vertue pays them R12, R10 and R3.50 for large, medium and “cocktail” oysters respectively.

The biggest hassle is that they can only gather during spring low tides, of which there are generally a maximum of 14 a month.

Inclement weather conditions – especially during winter – sometimes reduces their access to the rocks to three days a month or even fewer.

Oysters dish
GOING WILD: Wild oysters are larger and much more succulent than their cultivated counterparts.

They also have to walk miles through the sand because the bakkies they hire for the day aren’t allowed on beaches.

The pickers’ biggest grouse (other than not being allowed help to carry additional bags… and in this you can see logic in the argument put forward by Sea Fisheries that it takes experienced pickers just 15 minutes to fill a bag) is they are not allowed to work SANParks’ coastal reserves.

By all accounts, there is such a surfeit in these coastal sanctuaries – estimated in some circles to be “in their many millions between the high water and spring low marks” – that once-flourishing colonies are being wiped out through over-population.

Yes, there’s a place for cultivated molluscs but, speaking for myself, I’d rather see wild oysters being expertly shucked by people such as 34 South’s Marlouise Stevens and dished up on ice with bubbly, lemon and tabasco, than washing up lifeless in the surf.

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