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The oyster is Jim Wild's world as he celebrates a life growing seafood on the Shoalhaven rivers

Jim Wild holds a tray of oysters with ice and lemon.
Greenwell Point oyster farmer Jim Wild holds a tray of his oysters, October 2017.

ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale

Greenwell Point oyster farmer Jim Wild has seen his beloved industry significantly evolve over the decades, but his enthusiasm for fresh seafood and loud shirts has never waned.

Anyone with a passing interest in seafood in the Shoalhaven region of New South Wales has heard of Jim Wild.

White hair, Hawaiian shirt, gumboots and tough hands from decades of shucking oysters have made the Greenwell Point farmer somewhat of an icon.

Salt, lemon and a dash of chilli sauce are in his blood, and from his small business on the Crookhaven and Shoalhaven Rivers east of Nowra, he has ridden the rocky seas of a life in aquaculture.

Whether it is too much rain flowing into the river upsetting the ecosystem, dealing with oyster diseases or meeting consumer demand while growing a product that takes three years to mature, he has led a resilient career.

"The Shoalhaven estuary here and Crookhaven grow a lot of oysters, but the sad thing about the industry is when I first started 38 years ago, there were 35 oysters farmers here and now there would be lucky to be 10," he said.

"But we've grown and sold so many oysters over the years, it's been good for the industry and the area because we're bringing people from all over the world to eat our oysters."

Creating a farming tourism product

One ingredient of Jim Wild's success is the fact he is a showman.

He has a seemingly infinite supply or garish shirts, and a shucking session is a performance.

Behind the routine is a smart business move which has reaped huge benefits for the Shoalhaven tourism industry.

While he is a commercial oyster farmer, he has seen enough rivals come and go to know that you need more than the ability to grow a tasty oyster to succeed.

"We get a lot of bus tours from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and China," he said.

"We want them to come and eat our seafood, because at the right time of the year, our oysters are as good as any other oyster in any other estuary."

He said about 40 per cent of customers who visited his business were Asian tourists.

He has learned they are looking for more than just the opportunity to eat a local oyster — they want an experience and information while the oyster is shucked in front of them.

Too many oysters have been sitting around for days in restaurants before they are eaten, he said.

Help needed to monitor river health

Part of being a commercial oyster farmer involves regularly testing the health of the river.

Water samples and oyster meat samples are regularly sent away to laboratories as part of complying with the industry's tight food safety standards.

Mr Wild said ever since an outbreak of disease on the Georges River in 1978, oyster farmers have been required to have a purification tank to kill any dangerous bacteria inside the oyster before it goes to market.

While it has increased food safety levels, he said it adds up to large overheads for farmers who need compensation for the work they do for the rivers they farm.

"All of our tests go to the food authority and even though we stop harvesting oysters, only the Food Authority can reopen the river for us. This costs oyster farmers a lot of money."

He said farmers would like some financial assistance from any level of government for the work they do to test the rivers they farm in.