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.

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