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Bluff Oysters are a prized delicacy in New Zealand and many of the fishers who catch them have lived on the sea for generations. Ricky Ryan and his family can trace their history back to the first contact between Māori and European settlers in 1824 in Bluff. James Spencer was the first European to settle in the area. Part of a whaling team further North, he was also a veteran of Waterloo and set up a trading station in flax and then fish. He married a Ngāi Tahu woman, Mere Te Kauri, from neighbouring Ruapuke Island and one of their daughters married a Ryan. The Ryans have been in Bluff ever since.
The family's story is peppered with history. Three years ago they were working on the boat Rita, the oldest registered fishing vessel in the country at 111 years old, although it has now been retired.
The crew on their current boat the Daphne-Kay is a family affair with Ricky's brothers Jason and Lynn jr and cousin Karl working on deck. With oystering their working day starts at 3am when they head out into Foveaux Strait in the darkness before dawn. They find a patch of sea tucked into the shelter of Stewart Island and begin dredging.
The Strait is notorious for howling westerly winds and strong currents. Ricky says it's part of the reason Bluff Oysters are such good quality.
"It's got a lot to do with the clean waters going through the Strait and the coldness of the water."
"It's one of the last natural oyster fisheries in the world," Karl adds. "Most of them are farmed these days."
The day's catch goes to the Ngāi Tahu factory where it is processed and packaged before being transported to eager customers around the country.
The Bluff oyster is a taonga species, which means it is of special cultural significance and importance to Ngāi Tahu. Locals like to deep-fry the oyster in batter for a milder, creamier flavor, or eat them fresh from the sea or pot in which they're packed.
Ngāi Tahu is a significant quota owner and supplier of Bluff oysters throughout New Zealand. Bluff oysters are shucked and packed in seawater, 1 dozen per small plastic pot. Ngāi Tahu Seafood also offers half-shell and live Bluff oysters, including for export.
Available in season March to August.