Kiwi seafood industry has bright future thanks to new farmed species and products

Published on
March 9, 2016

New Zealand has an enviable reputation for seafood quality, and particularly for its farmed fish and shellfish.

Aquaculture in New Zealand has grown from small beginnings some 40 years ago to a significant primary industry, sustainably producing Greenshell mussels, king salmon (Chinook), and Pacific oysters.

Mussel production is currently around 76,500 metric tons (MT), 28,000 MT worth NZD 260 million (USD 172 million), of which is exported, mainly as a frozen half-shell product to the U.S., China, Thailand and South Korea, with smaller quantities going to Europe. Production in some years reaches more than 90,000 MT.

Greenshell mussels grow to a large size and market tradition has it that the bigger the shell, the better the product. However, Sea Products NZ recently started producing a slightly smaller half-shell product for export. This has met with success, particularly in the U.S. “Many people find the very large meats daunting and the benefit of selling mussels smaller is that we can grow them quicker, which in turn means better cash-flow,” said production manager Jason Bull.

The company produces around 4,000 MT of half-shell product per year at its Auckland factory. Mussels are delivered fresh daily from farm sites in the Coromandel, two hours’ drive away. After washing and cooking, each shell is hand-separated then placed on a conveyor belt leading to a spiral freezer, which leads to an auto weighing and packing machine.

“The whole process is swift and effective, which ensures a very high quality product,” said Bull.

The availability of wild mussel spat can be sporadic and unreliable, but new joint venture company SPATnz aims to alleviate this problem by producing hatchery spat. Manager Rodney Roberts explained that the project is going well and that future plans include selective breeding for particular characteristics such as size, color, taste, texture and growth performance.

“The benefit of hatchery spat is that it gives a consistent performance that growers can rely on, whereas wild-caught spat is an unknown,” Roberts said.

King salmon is a favorite on the domestic market, which consumes around one-third of the 12,000 MT annual production, worth NZD 160 million (USD 106 million). The fish is grown to harvest in seawater in the Marlborough Sounds, Akaroa Harbour and the waters off Stewart Island, as well as in freshwater raceways associated with hydro-electric schemes, with equally good results. Unlike Atlantic salmon, Chinook can thrive without a saltwater phase.

Chilled salmon fillets are destined for the U.S., Australia, Japan and Thailand, and the New Zealand King Salmon Co. is building a new market for high quality whole chilled salmon in restaurants in the U.S. There is also a small export market for frozen salmon fillets.

Around 1,600 to 1,700 MT of oysters are produced each year, the majority of which are exported as a frozen half-shell product, particularly to Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Polynesia and China. The oyster population is slowly recovering from an outbreak of oyster herpes virus in 2011 that destroyed more than 60 percent of the stock.

Funded by a levy, Aquaculture New Zealand works hand-in-hand with producers and processors, providing market information and intelligence, generic marketing materials, education, and scientific and technical services advice. The body also has connections with universities and research institutes, jointly promoting research partnerships and knowledge exchange, and with government to ensure industry needs remain a priority.

“We do a limited amount of export work related to improving quality, and attend some exhibitions such as the China Seafood Show in Dalian to promote “Brand NZ” with New Zealand Trade & Enterprise,” said technical director Colin Johnston.

“Domestically we promote seafood with the message such as ‘love seafood that loves you back,’ and stress the importance of Omega 3 in the diet and eating two portions per week.”

“Other species such as hapuku (groper), kingfish, sea cucumber and paua (abalone) have been investigated, some more successfully than others. There is now a thriving paua farm in Northland, and I think we will see production of kingfish sooner rather than later,” he said.

However, things may be about to change, as the Cawthron Institute, New Zealand's largest independent science organization, undertakes some exciting research on breeding scampi (Metanephrops challengeri) and geoduck.
The Institute is also working with a Māori fishing company to help refocus the wild-caught New Zealand scampi industry from frozen commodity production, to live export trade in a bid to realize its estimated NZD 200 million (USD 133 million) annual export potential.

“This is Camilla, named after the Duchess of Cornwall, in honor of a visit by HRH The Prince of Wales in November,” said Dr Kevin Heasman, introducing the world’s first female scampi raised in a hatchery.

“Our scampi programme has established the world’s first captive breeding program for this species,” he added.

The Cawthron Institute is also undertaking a project with Sanford Limited, one of the largest mussel producers, to identify and validate the health benefits of Greenshell mussels. In particular, they are looking at their potential anti-inflammatory qualities for improved joint and bone health and increased mobility.

"Our aim is to add even more value to this gourmet delicacy by fully understanding and validating its known health benefits," said Cawthron Marine Lipids Chemist and program leader Matt Miller.

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