The Far North settlement of Kaeo is reeling after Sanford announced it was closing its oyster processing plant - one of the town's biggest employers - with the loss of 15 full time and 51 seasonal jobs.

It's a major setback for the small town, which took a hammering when ex-tropical cyclone Wilma struck the Far North in late January. And Kaeo was in deep water earlier when flooding affected the North.

Sanford managing director Eric Barratt said the plant, which stopped processing for the season last month, lacked shellfish as the OsHV-1 virus had decimated young oysters growing at the company's oyster farms at Whangaroa, Houhora and Kerikeri.

Sanford would keep its oyster farms operating and would work to beat the virus, selling its oysters to other processors in the meantime.


"Sanford is working on a number of initiatives on its own account, with industry and with research organisations to mitigate the impacts of the virus. However, at this stage it is not anticipated these initiatives will have a consequential impact on the stock available for processing in future years," Mr Barratt said.

The company was consulting with its Kaeo employees, government agencies and Northland community leaders in a bid to find work for those who were losing their jobs.

"We are already putting in place a job search programme, contacting major employers in the Northland area in case of any vacancies appropriate for any of our team," Mr Barratt said.

"We are also asking all Sanford plants and fleet operations to identify any vacancies throughout the group."

Te Runanga o Whaingaroa has been a mainstay of the Kaeo community during hard times such as floods. Chief executive Terry Smith was in the South Island when the Advocate called yesterday, but Stephen Rush, who deals with the runanga's environmental issues, said the loss of oyster processing jobs was a big hit for the town.

"They keep us in the dark about this sort of thing so all we can do is react when it happens," he said.

"Now we have got to sort something out to deal with this situation."

Labour Party list MP and fisheries spokesman Shane Jones said he had attended the opening of the oyster processing factory with Helen Clark and Dover Samuels about a decade ago.

"It's a virtual tragedy they've had to close it down because of disease hitting the oysters. It's a reminder of how fragile the seafood industry is," Mr Jones said.

He gave Sanford top marks for being a good corporate citizen and searching for work elsewhere for those who lost their jobs.

"It's a timely reminder to funders of science and captains of industry that we must apply the funds and talents we have to ensuring future aquaculture possibilities and jobs," Mr Jones said.

"If you can't keep your underlying stock alive it's an indictment on us in terms of our ambitions to be world leading food processors."

Mr Jones also said Maoridom needed to take more responsibility for funding, maintaining and expanding aquaculture.

But with a reminder about the oyster virus and and a warning about not having all your eggs in the same basket, he said: "There's no point having a 20 per cent stake of available aquaculture space if it is all confined to a single species."