The world is your oyster, when oysters are your world | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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The world is your oyster, when oysters are your world

Oysters aren’t big on travel. They pick a rock, and they stick to it.

It’s a different story for this oyster researcher.

From a PHD at the University of the Sunshine Coast, to hatcheries and First Nations’ farms in America, Canada and New Zealand – oysters have taken Dr Samantha Nowland around the world.

Now her oyster odyssey has taken her back to where it all began – continuing a quest to revive centuries-old Indigenous fisheries through aquaculture in her home state

Dr Samantha Nowland studying oyster hatcheries in New Zealand

“I was working as a research scientist at the Darwin Aquaculture Centre and became involved in a project on Blacklip Rock Oysters in partnership with two Indigenous communities,” Dr Nowland said.

“I wanted to add value to the project by undertaking a PHD on optimising hatchery culture techniques for this native oyster species to support Indigenous economic development, so I approached Professor Paul Southgate, who I’d worked with on a previous project with sea cucumbers in Papua New Guinea, and he brought me to UniSC.”

A lot has changed in the years since. Samantha Nowland now has “Dr” in front of her name and is a senior aquaculture scientist for the Northern Territory Government. She’s also an adjunct at UniSC’s Australian Centre for Pacific Islands Research.

But one thing hasn’t changed – her passion for using aquaculture to foster Indigenous economic growth.

Dr Samantha Nowland and Ranger David Marayala Yunipingu collecting wild oysters in Nhulunbuy

“Some of the communities we started working with on the Blacklip Rock Oyster research nine years ago are now transitioning into commercial production, and we've still got more communities that are coming on board,” she said.

“It’s been good to see the research making a meaningful difference.”

Dr Nowland isn’t the only one to see the project’s potential.

In 2019, she was awarded a Yulgilbar Foundation Churchill Fellowship to research hatchery technologies and Indigenous business development for six weeks in New Zealand, the USA and Canada.

Then, with her bags packed and ready to go, COVID struck. Her fact-finding trip would have to wait another four years.

But planning the trip in 2023 brought with it a new set of challenges.

“In the meantime, I’d had a child. That made things a bit trickier! But I was lucky to have my mum and my mother-in-law come along with me at different times, to help with looking after Nyle while I worked,” she said.


Dr Samantha Nowland and her son Nyle at an aquaculture facility in Canada

“One of the reflections I’ve had on First Nations farming is how their way of thinking takes a much more long-term view than a typical Western approach.

“Moana for example, New Zealand’s largest Maori-owned fisheries company, has a 100-year business plan. They know reliance on wild stocks isn’t always sustainable, so they’re happy to invest in aquaculture and run at a loss for a given number of years.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime to travel across the globe on an oyster aquaculture adventure and bring valuable knowledge and connections back to Australia.”


A fresh oyster from a farm at Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

Now back on home soil at Darwin’s Aquaculture Centre, she’s hoping to put some of the findings into practice – with a few familiar faces from UniSC.

“I look over the science with the oyster programme, but we’re also doing black jewfish research and development and we're starting to look at tropical seaweeds too with the UniSC Seaweed Research Group,” she said.

“Dr Libby Swanepoel and Dr Alexandra Campbell recently joined me on a scoping trip to Goulburn Island and Groote Eylandt to look at natural abundance of seaweeds and explore joint oyster/seaweed aquaculture opportunities.

“Shortly I will be submitting my Churchill Fellowship report and I invite anyone who is interested to take a look, so we can help to realise the potential of this exciting new industry for northern Australia.

“The research doesn’t stop there either. It's a long road, but it’s been great. I still really love it.”

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