Oyster farmer Lance Wiffen harvests his crop off the coast of Portarlington. With its frilled, flat shell, the angasi oyster in his hands is highly prized for its texture and taste. Photo: Pat Scala
AT FIRST glance, the seaweed-covered rope that Lance Wiffen pulls aboard off the coast of Portarlington looks like flotsam from the strong currents of Port Phillip Bay.
It's only when all organic matter has been pulled away that his treasure becomes visible: clinging to the rope are half a dozen immature angasi oysters, the first of the native species to be commercially cultivated in Victorian waters.
For Mr Wiffen, the owner of Sea Bounty and a mussel farmer for 30 years, the maturation of these flat-shelled oysters heralds the success of four years of experimentation. It has been a long road. Unlike hardier Pacific oysters that commonly grow on rock faces, the angasi with its more fragile shell requires protection and shelter.
This brings with it a particular set of challenges. ''Using a cage is the typical way to grow an oyster,'' Mr Wiffen explains, handling the large, shoebox-sized cage.
But early experiments proved the method's fallibility: the angasi grows best when suspended in deep water below wave motion.
In Port Phillip Bay, this means the oysters benefit from strong currents providing ample nutrients. Of course, there is a flip side, namely the heavy biofouling (collection of algae and micro-organisms) that risks clogging the cages, introducing the threat of suffocation as the oysters become unable to ''breathe''.
As such, Mr Wiffen has devised a three-step cultivation method (see box) that he hopes will allow him to manage the risks inherent in farming the native bivalve.
So far, things are looking up. There are now 30,000 angasi suspended on ropes 26 metres deep, ready for an autumn harvest. A second, larger crop of 500,000 are maturing alongside the first batch, the first of which Mr Wiffen hopes to be ready for Christmas 2013. Certainly, local chefs are excited. Ben Shewry, of the acclaimed restaurant Attica, sees the development as a ''big deal'' for the Victorian industry, opening the possibility of a regional product where none now exists.
''I can potentially get oysters in my restaurant, ready to serve, on the day they were harvested, or certainly within 24 hours,'' he explains. ''At the moment we don't really serve oysters at all, simply because we don't have a local choice.''
Yet it is not just the proximity that is appealing. With its frilled, flat shell, the angasi is highly prized for its texture and taste.
It is commonly compared to the more briny European oyster, and Shewry describes it as possessing a firmer texture, with a not unpleasant bitter tinge ''a little bit closer in taste'' to the New Zealand Bluff oyster.
Mr Wiffen is clearly hoping Shewry's enthusiasm catches on.
Harvested in the early 1800s before destruction of the reef environment all but wiped the native oyster out, the Portarlington local hopes to rebuild the industry, with dreams of harvesting up to 3 million oysters for commercial sale each year.
''We have been growing mussels for 25 years in Port Phillip Bay and they are some of the tastiest in the world,'' he says, holding half a dozen of the angasi in his palm as we head back to shore on the boat. ''We don't expect any less from these oysters.''