Almost all of the 500 oyster farms in Australia are family farm operations. The annual GVP of the industry is not growing consistently and the number of farms is declining due to the devastation caused by the disease POMS in NSW estuaries. Research by the Seafood CRC showed that only 44% of Australians ever eat oysters and less than 4% eat them regularly. The days when oysters were an expensive delicacy are gone. Oysters are now a loss leader in many seafood outlets. To combat this decline many oyster growers are forming alliances to market their oysters direct to restaurants in Australia and Asia. These offerings are based on freshness and provenance. To deliver on both these promises, the oyster must be delivered to the restaurant live and unopened. Shucking must then be undertaken by an experienced person.
The difficulty in shucking oysters experienced by many people limits the demand for oysters. Most oysters are shucked by staff employed by wholesalers and sold in the half shell. All wholesalers report difficulty in maintaining shucking staff. Also, the eating experience of half shell oysters is inferior to that of freshly shucked oysters.
The easy-open oyster concept was designed to overcome these issues and to lift consumer demand for oysters, thereby enabling the industry to grow. This project aims to deliver at least a 15% premium on the price received by farmers for provenance-guaranteed Easy-Open oysters. In the longer term the desired outcome for oyster farmers is to increase both the volume and annual GVP of oyster sales in Australia.
This project attempted to overcome the consumer barrier to oyster shucking by developing the idea of an Easy Open oyster suggested by Mr Robert Simmonds, owner of Oyster Bob Pty Ltd. This entailed making a slit in the edge of the oyster shell and resealing it with wax so that the oyster remained alive but could be easily opened later by easily placing a knife through the slit and cutting the muscle that holds together the two shells of the oyster. To enable production of sufficient volumes of Easy Open oysters the process had to be automated. It then had to be evaluated under commercial conditions.
This project used robotic technology plus vision and sensing systems based on three dimensional laser cameras to automate the Easy-Open process.
A prototype machine was designed and manufactured by Scott Automation and Robotics Pty Ltd and was evaluated for commercial suitability by Oyster Bob at a seafood processing factory in Adelaide.
Success criteria were established at the start of the project, as follows:
- At least 30 dozen oysters processed per hour, with minimal rejects.
- Processed oysters remain alive for at least eight days.
- Wax covering is neat and does not crack or break off during transport.
- Processed oysters can be easily opened by an unskilled person.
- Little or no shell dust found inside the oyster after cutting.
- Customer feedback is positive.
- Labels can be attached to the processed oysters.
All of these criteria were ultimately met. The process of cutting and waxing oysters is now protected by Australian Innovation Patent number 2018100256, owned by FRDC.