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The Territory Is Your Oyster

AUSTRALIA - A veritable smorgasbord of crustaceans; oysters to improve the diet of a community; giant clams as part of the lucrative aquarium market; and tapping into the palates of the Chinese.

These activities are being touted by some as possibly the next part of the region's expanding aquaculture industry - worth an estimated $21 million in 2008/09, reports ABC News .

This comprised largely barramundi farming, pearling and the aquarium trade.

The recent finding by the Northern Taskforce that the region would not be the nation's food bowl has focussed attention on the expanding of so-called niche primary industries.

The study canned the idea that simply by harnessing the Territory's water, the region would soon be providing food not only to its southern cousins but also to the near north.

It argued that instead it was time to concentrate more on niche or mosaic agriculture.

Darwin's Aquaculture Research Centre [DAC] has been at the forefront in working with the fledgling industry and is now at the next stage with developing black lip oysters - once the traditional fare of Tiwi Islanders, giant clams for the lucrative domestic aquarium trade, and also tapping into the Chinese eagerness for sea cucumbers.

The black lip oyster for many years was part of the diet of Tiwi Islanders.

It was highly prized; however, over the years its nutritious value had been ignored.

Community elders approached the centre to examine the possibility of establishing a small-scale enterprise where the oysters would be harvested and then sold through the community store.

So-called broodstock were taken from the area to the DAC where they have been used for spawning and now several thousand spat have resulted.

These are to be taken back to the islands where it is hoped they will be able to withstand the currents and develop on racks and grow-out cages in the same way that Sydney rock oysters have been managed on the southern coast of New South Wales.

In tanks very close to the oysters are very small giant clams.

They are attached to bricks, and what would appear to be other solid material from a building site.

The clams which are between one and two centimetres in length are about four months old and are now displaying their colours.

Evan Needham, who is a researcher at the centre, says they are at an important stage.

"These are just starting to show their colours which is very critical to the aquarium trade.

"People want to have things that look nice and pretty in their tank."

This venture is being undertaken in conjunction with a commercial operation at Nhulunbuy.

Presently the cost of producing them means that while people are willing to buy them for their decorative features, they are still too expensive for the dinner plate.

However If it proves successful it is possible that with breeding on a much larger scale they could also be exported to Asia for food.

While that may be a problem with the clams, it is the eating habits of the Chinese which has led to the next stage of "ranching" sea cucumbers.

The highly-prized sausage-shaped creature attracts a high price in Asia.

The DAC in conjunction with a Tasmanian sea food company is hoping to tap into that market.

Spawning has been successful and now tens of thousands of the sea cucumbers will be flown to Goulburn Island and Groote Eylandt where the communities will be involved in the next step.

When the time is right they are harvested and go through "an elaborate process", which includes being gutted and dried and then sold. Those purchasing the dried product then rehydrate them often serving them with other ingredients.

Evan Needham has only tried it once; "it tastes a little like tofu and has the texture of jelly".

Given the success over the past decade as the farming of barramundi has occurred, along with other aquaculture such as pearling, these latest ventures are certain to be watched carefully.

the Fish Site Editor

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