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New Zealand’s aquaculture industry holds much promise, but faces real constraints. Dr Nigel Bradly explains the challenges and opportunities post Covid-19, and the initiatives that could unlock its true export potential.

Confidence was riding high in New Zealand’s aquaculture industry prior to the unwelcome arrival of Covid-19. Salmon, mussels and oysters were the export stars, but the industry was dealt a body blow by the impact of the pandemic on offshore sales.

In recent times aquaculture has also been impacted by poor water quality. Dr Nigel Bradly (pictured below), CEO of natural resource and sustainability advisor EnviroStrat, reports that it’s particularly impacting spat supplies (spat are very young shellfish and the raw material of mussel farms).

“As a country we haven’t invested enough to date in critical assets like hatcheries to provide the certainty of supply that you see in a lot of other countries.”

He also believes that the sector hasn’t necessarily kept up to speed on R&D and technology as much as other sectors.

“Climate change is also a significant challenge for the sector – with warming seas, acidification and biosecurity risks that come with the warmer temperatures.”

But while there are challenges, there are also opportunities. Bradly sees them particularly in higher value end-use – developing processes to produce such things as anti-inflammatory products, for example. “Therapeutic powders and oils, which require a larger capital cost, but where the marketplace hasn’t been impacted by Covid in the same way.”

Bradly compares the half-shell mussel market which dropped dramatically under Covid, with the production of mussel powder or mussel oil for pet supplements, and human health, which have been selling well (but which have much higher capital costs as a barrier to entry)

There is also opportunity in the long-term for developing a high value seaweed sector. While there are some harvests in the wild, from mussel farms as bycatch, and off beaches, seaweed is not farmed for itself in New Zealand, says Bradly. He says there is a lot of fascinating R&D and commercialisation happening to create value from seaweed in New Zealand which needs to be taken advantage of.

But where is the investment in the aquaculture sector coming from?

Bradly says a lot of interest is emerging globally from a new type of investor – people and organisations interested in investments that have low environmental impact yet produce high value products.

“There’s a range of different ways in which government can play a role here, but in my opinion, rather than saying we need a handout, it’s more saying, ‘here are the areas we need help with’,’’ he says. “Whether that’s through regulatory change or co-funded R&D or assisting through the likes of the Provincial Growth Fund with some co-funding for infrastructure.

“Most importantly, private capital is what the industry needs, coalesced alongside the Government.”


Showing initiative

Recently some world leading initiatives have been ramping up in the aquaculture sector. One that has captured attention, and funding, is a seaweed species called asparagopsis that received significant government funding for the Cawthron Institute to investigate. It is a red seaweed ground into a powder and given as a feed supplement to cattle to dramatically reduce methane emissions. “There’s also funding going into a new facility at Waikato University in Tauranga, focused specifically on seaweed with a world class research team out of Australia” adds Bradly.

There have been other initiatives around farming salmon and shellfish further offshore in deeper waters, which navigates around any of the environmental impacts and resource consenting issues closer to shore.

“Engineering technology now allows that to happen, as in the North Sea or Norway, way offshore in massive ocean environments.”

There is a degree of catching up required in the aquaculture sector, and with the move to deeper water new strategic thinking is required around the planning and allocating of marine space.

Bradly believes there is a degree of catching up required in the aquaculture sector, and with the move to deeper water new strategic thinking is required around the planning and allocating of marine space.

“There have been three applications for offshore salmon farming in Southland in recent months, but there’s no spatial planning context. So there is significant work needed across the country as we start looking more closely at this.”

Farming other fish species such as kingfish and snapper also requires the blending of research with capital investment, explains Bradly. The R&D has been done, but development still isn’t happening, he adds.

“One of the real challenges here is that, as you’ve seen globally, the move away from meat-based protein and the increasing concerns from a climate change and carbon footprint perspective in Europe, North America, etcetera, means today’s customer has a completely different perspective than two or three years ago.

“And, how do we compete with a product that’s grown closer to its market, in terms of its carbon footprint? Also, if you have huge chunks of the population moving toward things that are not animal-based, then how do you respond to that?

“These are issues we need to address.”


Lessons from overseas – a sector constrained

New Zealand aquaculture has a huge amount of catching up to do – particularly on techniques around hatcheries; around growing and farming, harvesting and processing.

Bradly says they’re keen to import and adapt the GreenWave regenerative ocean farming business model from overseas, which provides support for small coastal communities to own their own businesses through things like hatcheries and training, workforce support, marketing and compliance, all through a non-profit central entity.

Regenerative ocean farming, enabled through geographically-based small business clusters, means products can be delivered into a collective to provide commercial scale for the market. He’s excited about what it would mean for smaller coastal fishing communities where fish stocks aren’t at their historic levels – the crayfish situation in the Hauraki Gulf, for example.

“We need to learn from what others have done. We shouldn’t just point at the Government and say, ‘you guys should create these markets or fix these problems for us’.

“There’s a place for the Government in all of this, but we don’t necessarily have to wait for them to take the lead.”

Looking to the future, the aquaculture industry must face its challenges, believes Bradly. The regulatory settings are evolving, but there is still the spat supply problem to deal with and the need for the right types of R&D to enable high-value usage of aquaculture-related products.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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