Our oyster farming operation was hampered by the need for constant maintenance and repair particularly after storm events. Loss of equipment and the oysters held within, was bad for business and the environment. Biofouling is a constant companion in the marine environment and control is expensive and labor intensive. Our company faced high staff turnover due to the very physical and repetitive nature of handling 20 million oysters up to 6 times per year. Our challenge was to find a method to significantly reduce the loss of farming equipment as well as streamline the production process without affecting oyster quality.
After spending 5 years searching for alternative systems, a chance encounter lead to the idea of leaving the oyster growing equipment permanently attached to the farm structures. This decision allowed extremely robust attachment systems to be used between the baskets and the marine farm infrastructure, in this case subtidal "longlines". Because the oyster baskets were now not removable, a system had to be developed to complete the normal operations of oyster farming, such as filling and emptying the baskets and controlling biofouling. Machinery was developed which not only accomplished these tasks but made them significantly quicker and easier than before.
Permanently attaching the oyster baskets to the lines has virtually eliminated equipment loss and maintenance. Automation of the filling, emptying and biofouling treatment of the baskets has increased staff efficiency by 66%. On top of this it has significantly reduced the physical effort required to do these tasks to the point where virtually anyone can complete them. The environment produced by this system has increased growth rates and size consistency by 30%. The system also improves shelf life, meat condition, shell hardness and shape which has resulted in our company winning NZ's top oyster for the past 3 years running.
The system is not only easy but fun to use. We often compare the operation of FlipFarm to a bottling plant. Each individual item can be handled in a steady and controlled way. When this is done in a linear, consecutive fashion, the result is an extremely smooth and efficient operation with very low stress on the equipment, oysters, or operators. Due to the removal of most of the physically demanding tasks often associated with oyster farming, it is possible to operate the system with a wide demographic of staff. This adds an unexpected social benefit in that men and women, young and old can operate the system on an equal footing. Other key benefits are the ability to control the effect of pest species such as "waferworm" which is a damaging predator of oysters or "mudworm" which produces unsightly blisters which can reduce the value of high quality halfshell oysters. We have virtually eliminated both of these previously damaging species in our operation. Another key feature with the system is the variety of situations it can be used in. FlipFarm works equally well in deep water, shallow intertidal sites, areas affected by ice, hurricanes, strong currents and flood-prone areas.