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
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
News
i100
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage: 'I don't know anybody in politics as poor as we are'
i100
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015