How live storage helped OysterLife pivot in the face of natural disasters

Four years ago, if you had asked Ewan McAsh where the best place to keep his oysters was, he would have said the river. Now, he’ll tell you live tanks are the way to go.

These tanks were essential in helping the business survive bush fires, floods and even Covid.

“When we first thought about them, we weren’t sure, we’re pretty spoiled in terms of fresh seafood and we thought we’d get blow back from chefs or consumers because the oysters were not straight out of the river. What we found was that the tanks gave the animals time to rest after being processed, so the quality was maintained and, most importantly, there was less work,” he says.

“The tanks mean we can harvest when oysters are at their best and when the weather makes the farm operations a whole lot easier. We have them available to sell every day of the week.

One of OysterLife's Austmarine M500 live tanks. This sized tank can hold 12,000 oysters for weeks at a time. Note iPad on wall mount for recording of tank inventory.

“During flood times, when the river was shut for harvesting for weeks on end, we had cash flow. During Covid, when restaurants shut down, we could pivot and start selling locally and direct to online because we already had the infrastructure in place to hold, store and ship small volumes of oysters.”

Ewan started Signature Oysters, a direct-to-consumer sales model, to circumvent the traditional model of selling hessian bags wholesale. The farm’s high-tech grading machinery could process 3,000 dozen at a time but was inefficient when selling smaller orders of 10 or 20 dozen. Which is where the live tanks came in.

“The tanks can hold 1,000 dozen, so we can use the wholesale processing equipment and then pack out small volumes over the following week. It’s been so successful that were now scaling up our wet storage facility, for wholesale and retail oysters,” Ewan says.

So how does it work?

“The live tanks are like big fish tanks, they’re designed for abalone, lobster and other live seafood species. They use UV light and carbon filters and they’re refrigerated as well, which are great for oysters because they are cooled down and almost in hibernation. The oysters are breathing but not feeding and can rest for a few days after the rigours of harvesting. It maintains their quality and can help with shelf life too,” Ewan says.

“The oysters can be kept in there for 8-12 weeks. They’re really resilient and they like it in there just chilling. Three months later they’re as good as the day you put them in, but we typically only keep them in for about 7-10 days.”

The oysters are stored in baskets that are then stacked in the tank's silos.

The first tank was installed in 2016. Since then, two more have been added. Ewan says they helped keep the business afloat during the devastating bush fires which ripped through Australia in 2019/2020.

“The most recent bush fires burnt out our entire catchment which was then hit by a major flood. While this did put the fires out, it also meant the river closed until the water cleared and salinity was back up. Before the fires, it was rare to shut the river more than 10-12 days, but when the catchment is completely burnt out it can now be shut for four or five weeks. We’ve had three incidences this year (and it’s only early spring),” Ewan says.

“Stocking the live tanks prior to rain events allows for cash flow to continue once the river closes for harvest. They were extra handy because we could also store and sell other farmers’ oysters. It’s made the business a whole lot more resilient to natural disaster, so we’ve decided to scale it up. Climate change is here, and we can expect more uncertainty and natural disasters. The tanks buffer us from this and make the business run smoother.

“Without the tanks we would’ve had a whole lot more financial stress and we wouldn’t have as much control over the supply chain, so we’d be almost be forced into accepting lower prices for our oysters.

“The storage tanks give us a sale-ready inventory that my marketing company can draw on. Instead of harvesting to order, we’re selling what’s in stock and what’s great quality. It’s super-handy in the new online sales realm.

“Other farmers rang us up and asked us how we were doing oyster sales, we shared it with them. Many had done all the work of setting up an online sales website but they hadn’t necessarily learnt the lessons we’d learnt - trying to harvest to order small volumes on a day-to-day basis is a nightmare. We’d already learnt that and invested in tanks to do it much more smoothly.”

The other advantage of the live tanks is that they save time, you’re not double-handling the oysters.

“When you harvest you often have surplus oysters that you can’t sell that day, traditionally you put them back in the water then have to process them again. With the tanks, you’re not having to re-handle them,” Ewan says.

“If you’d have talked to me four years ago, I would’ve said the best place to keep oysters is in the river, that it’s the best storage tank around. Not anymore.”