5. Oyster farmers lament M.Bovis focus

Compensation paid to oyster farmers is less than one-tenth paid to livestock farmers affected by Mycoplasma bovis. David Williams reports.

Mycoplasma bovis has pushed oyster farm compensation off the Ministry for Primary Industries’ agenda, a desperate Southlander says.

“You oil the wheel that squeaks the most,” says Rodney Clark, whose Stewart Island oyster farm operation was removed by government order, after an outbreak of the oyster-killing parasite Bonamia ostreae. “And the one that’s squeaking is M. bovis. The oyster farmers have been forgotten and pushed to the back.”

Livestock farmers have criticised MPI for the slow rate of compensation for M. bovis. In response, partial payments are being made to farmers who have culled their stock in compliance with the Ministry’s directions.

Figures provided by MPI show payouts for the cattle disease are more than 10 times that for B. ostreae. Up to last Wednesday, $4.58 million had been paid out for M. bovis, while oyster farmers whose operations were removed on Stewart Island and in Marlborough had been paid $431,000.

That’s despite the oyster farms being removed – and compensation claims being lodged – many months before M. bovis started getting out of hand and a cull order was issued for more than 22,000 cattle.

MPI compensation team principal adviser Wayne Stevens says: “We have recruited extra staff into the compensation team to cope with demand, and are working at pace to assess each claim fairly.”

Communication ‘disastrous’

Stewart Island’s Helen Cave is part-owner of shellfish farming company Eade, Ericson and Cave Ltd (EEC), which had aquaculture farms removed from Big Glory Bay. She says some removal costs have been paid and replacement lines provided but there has been no actual compensation.

Cave says MPI’s communication has been “disastrous”. “Emails are rarely acknowledged, and responses generally insubstantial. They don’t answer their phones and phone messages left on their automated answering service get no response.”

Most EEC oyster farming was done alongside its mussel farms, with oysters interspersed with mussels on the lines in a “non-intensive, low-risk” method. (Several were done in share-fishing arrangements, while one had the proceeds donated to the Stewart Island community centre.) Cave says there was no sign of any bonamia or mortality on the lines or “trayed” oysters that were lifted.

The removal of the farms was disappointing, she says, because oyster farming was perfect for Stewart Island, as a high-value low-volume product to which the island facilities could easily be adapted.

“It would have led to more stable, permanent jobs, not just in the farming itself but in the processing.”

Former oyster farmer Clark, who lives in Bluff, says he doesn’t qualify for the dole because his company, which has liquidated all its physical assets, has a single asset left – the compensation claims with MPI. But payments aren’t being made and MPI’s message to Clark is the same – that the claims are being considered.

Clark compares it to being trapped in an abusive relationship. “We didn’t ask for this relationship – it was forced on us. We have no say or ability to control any part of our lives.”

However, another former Big Glory Bay oyster farmer, who doesn’t want to be named, tells a very different story. “One of my claims has been settled and I’ve been treated very well by MPI.”

“We’ve got the invoices, what we’ve paid for gear, this is what was destroyed and we’ve given them verifiable information.” – Rodney Clark
On June 9 last year, MPI announced oyster farming operations in Stewart Island’s Big Glory Bay would be removed because of the detection of B.ostreae. Extraction in the bay started on June 19, with Marlborough oyster farms being removed later.

The Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, meanwhile, was first reported on July 25 last year – with the decision of a mass-cull only taken in March of this year.

Cattle claims have outnumbered those for oyster farms. MPI’s Stevens says it has received 113 claims for M.bovis, 87 of which are at “various stages of evaluation, assessment or approval”. In relation to B.ostreae, 24 claims have been received, with 21 at “various stages of evaluation, assessment or approval”.

Stevens says: “We’re currently considering the process for valuing oysters due for harvest in future years.”

Some former oyster farmers are still making claims. But MPI appears to have been sitting on some for months – since well before Christmas. A briefing provided to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor shows MPI had already received nine claims by November 8.

Clark says his company, New Zealand’s Bluff Oyster Company, filed straight-forward claims – for destroyed equipment and redundancy of staff – eight or nine months ago. “We’ve got the invoices, what we’ve paid for gear, this is what was destroyed and we’ve given them verifiable information. We’ve asked them if they need anything else and they’ve come back and said no, but still we don’t get anything. It’s put tremendous strain on everybody.”

Evidential difficulties

Stevens says MPI has had difficulties in getting verifiable evidence from claimants, which has led to assessors going back and forth with claimants for more information.

On M. bovis, 10 DairyNZ staff in South Canterbury, North Otago and Southland have been trained to help farmers prepare compensation claims. “In addition, we’ve committed that farmers whose animals are being culled will receive an initial payment for the value of culled stock within two weeks of a completed claim being lodged.”

Last year, Clark’s company received a payment for the emergency removal of his operation and then, in October, a one-off hardship payment of $30,000 – received just hours after he did an interview with RNZ. The former oysterman, who estimates his company had more than 20 million live oysters at the Stewart Island farm and Bluff hatchery, is asking for patience from sympathetic creditors, while politely fending off circling credit card companies.

Communication from MPI has been poor, Clark says – “very poor”. “They’re deluged with so many different claims coming in, they’re under pressure from everywhere. But you don’t deal with people by ignoring them.”