Coastal pollution makes Australian oyster-lovers sick

An outbreak of hepatitis A ruins Robert Milliken's enjoyment of a favoured dish

Sydney - Recently I took a three-day weekend and headed out of Sydney up the coast of New South Wales to try to enjoy a short, peaceful break while the Australian summer lasted. February in Australia is like August in Europe: get-out-of-town time. Peaceful it might have been, but there has been little peace of mind since I returned to Sydney. That is because oysters were a central part of my holiday plan.

On the drive to the small coastal town of South West Rocks, about 250 miles north of Sydney, I pulled in to Wallis Lake to buy four dozen of the area's famous oysters.

Oysters in Australia are abundant, succulent and ridiculously cheap. For the equivalent of pounds 3, you can have a dozen of some of the finest oysters to be found anywhere.

Buy them direct from an oyster farmer, as I did, and you will often find when you get home that he has thrown an extra dozen in the bag for no extra charge. Coastal Aborigines lived on oysters long before whites arrived. The foreshores of Sydney harbour and many towns are dotted with middens formed by centuries of discarded oyster shells.

Wallis Lake oysters are big business, and deservedly so. They have a taste all their own, and the farmers there have worked hard to build beyond their small community a market that now reaches across Australia and overseas. Wallis Lake produces about half the oysters in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state.

When I arrived in South West Rocks, the ritual began. We opened the oysters ourselves, doused them with lime juice and put them out as the first course for our dinner.

"Excellent," pronounced John. "Wonderful!" said Stephen. "Mmmm," said I. "Robert, I think you should go back to Wallis Lake and get some more," suggested Bill. We quaffed our wine and laughed.

Barely a day after I returned to Sydney, I turned on the radio news to hear that Australia has had its worst outbreak of hepatitis A for 20 years, and that the suspected source of infection is Wallis Lake oysters.

More than 400 people are now infected in every Australian state bar Tasmania, six times the normal infection rate for hepatitis A over this period. About two-thirds of them ate oysters recently, and most of those appear to have come from Wallis Lake. A 77-year-old Sydney man who came down with the illness after eating Wallis Lake oysters has died.

The once-proud oyster business there has been devastated. The farmers have shut their doors, and millions of Wallis Lake oysters have been recalled from shops. Already, a Melbourne law firm is preparing a class action to sue whoever is found to be responsible.

Like many others watching the story unfold, my calm turned to shock and then outrage. Although the authorities have yet to prove it, there are strong signs that the infection came from sewage contamination of Wallis Lake during heavy storms in January and February. But there have been plenty of heavy storms in the past. Why now? Because some towns and villages around Wallis Lake, and its river contributory, have old sewage treatment plants or no conventional treatment plants at all. This time, it seems, the whole system gave way under too much pressure.

The oyster scandal has raised a bigger issue for Australians of how they manage their coastal environments. Oysters have always been a symbol of the Australian good life: fresh, clean and plentiful. Yet more and more Australians are flocking to fragile coastal communities like Wallis Lake to escape city life faster than the authorities are able, or willing, to manage them. If Wallis Lake can become a no-go area, what about bigger waterways like Sydney harbour?

The scandal arose as thousands of people prepared to turn out tomorrow for the eighth Clean Up Australia Day. Ian Kiernan, the former round- the-world sailor who initiated the voluntary event in 1989 after being shocked by pollution in oceans he sailed through, nominated the city's harbour as the front line for this year's clean-up. After years of cajoling authorities, he is incensed that sewage overflows still pour into the harbour after heavy storms. "The Sydney Olympic Games are only four years away," says Mr Kiernan. "Do we invite the world here and then tell them they can't go swimming for fear of catching a disease?"

As for me and my friends, we're all still standing. I'm just putting that strange twinge in the stomach the other day down to a change in the weather.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before