Ballina oyster farmer and seafood retailer Geoff Lawyer inspects the cool room that thieves broke into to steal oysters.
Ballina oyster farmer and seafood retailer Geoff Lawyer inspects the cool room that thieves broke into to steal oysters. Doug Eaton

Stolen oysters feed black market

SOPHISTICATED black marketeers are ripping off North Coast oyster farmers and seafood producers, threatening their livelihoods and risking consumers’ safety with contaminated produce.

Oyster farmer Ray Hunt, who owns and operates Ballina Fresh Oysters and has been hit many times this season, said the thieves were becoming more brazen.

“We’d always lose a few to petty thieves, but these guys are slick operators with black boats, GPS units and night-vision equipment,” he said.

“They float through the leases during the day pretending to be fishing while marking the rack locations on their GPS unit. Then they come back at night without lights and clean us out – it can be anything up to a couple of thousand dollars worth.

“Our operations aren’t as big as those being hit down south, but on percentage we’re losing as much and it hurts.”

Fellow Ballina oyster farmer and seafood retailer Geoff Lawler said he had been hit again this week and that local producers had been feeling the pinch all year.

Mr Lawler has oyster leases on the Richmond, Brunswick and Tweed rivers and said the problem was escalating.

He lost $800 worth at Brunswick Heads last month and estimates he is regularly losing about $300 each week on the Tweed.

“We’ve also noticed a step-up in the wanton destruction of equipment, which can double the loss,” he said.

“They sell them in pubs and through the back doors of restaurants. Last week a mate saw guys selling oysters and prawns in the Lismore Industrial Estate on Thursday and Friday afternoon. They had no licence and no signs on their truck.”

NSW authorities are so concerned they have launched Operation Trident – an on-going statewide compliance operation designed to deter and detect oyster theft and protect consumers from potentially unsafe black market produce during the Christmas/New Year period.

The operation includes NSW Police, NSW Fisheries and the NSW Food Authority.

NSW Police marine area commander Joe McNulty said they would utilise state-of-the-art surveillance gear, including infra-red cameras and other intelligence-gathering equipment.

“Would-be oyster thieves are on notice again – we will catch you,” he said.

“Oyster thieves target leases worked on tirelessly by farmers for years on end and the thefts impact on farmers, their families and ultimately the consumer. It is up to the public too to report oyster thefts and suspicious sales of oysters for the safety of communities.

“If someone approaches you in a pub, or if you run a restaurant and someone tries to sell you cheap oysters, ring Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 and help us put an end to this potentially dangerous scam,” he said.



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