Gearing for growth

New Zealand king salmon farms

New Zealand’s aquaculture sector aims to grow fourfold by 2035. Sandy Neil finds out how

New Zealand has ambitions to grow its aquaculture – especially salmon, oysters and mussels. Greenshell mussels have become the source for world famous nutraceutical products and the salmon sector is beginning to branch out into the open ocean.

New Zealand is a country of only five million people, about the same as the population of Scotland, living on a land mass the size of the whole of the United Kingdom. Its aquaculture industry – mainly farming greenshell mussels, king salmon and Pacific oysters – employs more than 3,000, people primarily in regional communities from Northland to Stewart Island.

Revenues are circa NZ $750m (£354m) per annum, but in 2019 the New Zealand Government set an ambitious goal to grow aquaculture into a NZ $3bn (£1.4bn) industry by 2035. Their plan is to create more value from existing species, including open ocean salmon farming, but also to farm new species, such as kingfish and seaweeds.

Mt Cook AlpineSalmon farm

Mt Cook Alpine Salmon farm

Salmon and glaciers
In the Southern Alps of New Zealand lies Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, where a prototype for New Zealand’s first sustainable, land-based salmon farm is in development.

Mt Cook Alpine Salmon is a major producer of freshwater king salmon in New Zealand, exporting over 60% of its production to markets around the world. The company employs over 240 people across Christchurch, Timaru, Queenstown and Twizel – where it is the largest employer.

The company runs five salmon farms in glacier-fed hydro-canals that run through the MacKenzie and Waitaki districts. It owns two hatcheries (and has shares in a third), a large primary processing plant in Timaru, and a secondary processing plant in Christchurch. Its $16.7m (£7.9m) land-based salmon farm project, launched in Twizel in 2022, is backed by $6.7m (£3.2m) over six years from the Government’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.

Mt Cook Alpine Salmon CEO, David Cole, said the plan is to create a sustainable 1,000 tonne hybrid structure that will use a part flow-through system to emulate the unique conditions of the glacial-fed canals. The facility is designed to optimise energy use through gravity-fed water and integrating renewable and low-energy solutions.

“This differs from the recirculated water systems used by most overseas land-based farms,” he said. “The design will capture waste, control the flows better to suit the fish, and provide a stable, ideal growing environment. Being land-based, it has the opportunity to deliver greater automation and monitoring systems in an all-weather working environment.

“The nutrients from the salmon operation will be collected to support an aquaponics crop, taking a circular approach and generating value from a zero-value waste stream. This will link to a wetland area that would further purify the water.”

Greenshell mussels

Greenshell mussels

Going green
Other big ventures are afoot – for example, the Government’s aquaculture strategy aims to boost greenshell mussel earnings to NZ $1 billion per year (£472m).

“Greenshell mussels are unique to Aotearoa [the Māori-language name for New Zealand] – they are only farmed in our waters,” explains Aquaculture New Zealand, a trade body representing marine farmers. “Aotearoa greenshell mussel powder is a nutraceutical product extracted from the indigenous bivalve mollusc Perna canaliculus.

“This natural nutraceutical extract has numerous health benefits including supporting muscle recovery, reduction in inflammation and joint pain, cartilage protection, improved symptoms and functionality from diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Ongoing research continues to unearth new, exciting and novel benefits.

“Our greenshell mussels are sustainably farmed and a prized taonga [treasure] to Māori [indigenous people of Aotearoa]. Māori have long known the benefits of consuming our mussels (known as kūtai or kūkūtai in te reo Māori), and now the world is learning about these superfoods and the powerful health benefits they can provide.”

In New Zealand’s 2023 general election last October, the centre-right National Party defeated the incumbent Labour Party, and entered into a coalition with both the libertarian ACT New Zealand and populist New Zealand First parties. Within recent months, many announcements have been issued by the new Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, the Hon. Shane Jones. In April, the Coalition Government backed a mussel spat project to boost survival rates.

New Zealand aquaculture

New Zealand aquaculture

“This project seeks to increase the resilience of our mussels and significantly boost the sector’s productivity,” Jones said.

“The project – enabling cost-effective nursery feeding and culture for New Zealand’s greenshell mussel aquaculture industry – will develop an innovative nursery culture system that will foster spat through their most vulnerable stage.

“The industry largely relies on wild-caught spat, which has extremely low survival rates. Less than 5% of wild-caught spat survives after being transferred to mussel farms, forgoing millions in lost production each year. This project aims to grow spat to a robust size before they are transferred.

“Significant areas of consented mussel farming space are vacant, in part due to the spat supply issue. This project will address those spat supply issues which are severely restricting the productivity and growth of the industry in New Zealand.”

The Coalition Government is co-investing NZ $410,000 (£194,000) over three years in the NZ $1.04m (£490,000) project, which “has the potential to lift the sales revenue of our mussels by tens of millions of dollars per year,” the minister added.

Greenshell mussel farm

Greenshell mussel farm

Looking offshore
The further expansion of salmon farms in inshore areas is unlikely in New Zealand. Open ocean aquaculture – the farming of salmon in enclosed fish pens, anchored in place to the seabed, in exposed marine environments – is therefore recognised as being critical for the future sustainable growth of the salmon sector. In March, the Coalition Government gave final approval for the country’s first open ocean salmon farm. It marked the end of a near five-year consent process for the project, known as Blue Endeavour.

The firm behind it, the New Zealand King Salmon Company (NZKS), has farmed salmon for more than 35 years in the Marlborough Sounds, and with nursery, hatchery and processing land-based operations in Nelson, Tākaka and Canterbury.

“Representing less than 1% of global salmon production, the king salmon species usually sells for significantly more than the price of Atlantic salmon. Atlantic salmon is the predominant salmonoid species sold globally,” it says. “Blue Endeavour will be New Zealand’s first open ocean aquaculture farm. It will also be the world’s first farm of its type for the valuable king salmon (Chinook) fish species.

“The farm will be located 7km off Cape Lambert in the Cook strait. It will comprise two blocks of ten circular pens; the total farm will be less than 12 surface hectares in size. When fully operational, Blue Endeavour will have the capacity to produce 10,000 metric tonnes of Chinook salmon [and] could generate NZD $300m (£142m) in new revenue per annum.”

Grant Lovell, NZKS General Manager of Aquaculture, called the open ocean as “an exciting opportunity and the next logical step for New Zealand’s aquaculture industry”.

“When we look to the open ocean we are looking at the future for salmon farming in New Zealand – in cooler, deeper waters,” he said. “It is a bit of a new frontier for our aquaculture industry – but one that we are entering one step at a time, backed by science and evidence-based decision-making.

“Putting fish pens out in the open ocean is not for the faint-hearted. We will be working in a dynamic environment, with waves up to 10 metres high – anyone that has caught the Cook Strait ferry knows what we are talking about. We will be trialling technologies and investing in mooring grid infrastructure to ensure we are able to adapt to the Cook Strait conditions.”

Carl Carrington, NZKS Chief Executive Officer, described the next steps as “needing to walk before we can run”.

He says: “From here, we will complete our 18-month programme of rigorous benthic (seabed), seabird and marine mammal monitoring. This will provide a baseline of information, against which we can measure the impacts of a working salmon farm.

“The next step will be a ‘proof-of-concept’ phase, putting in the trial pens from June 2025. This is when it starts to get exciting from a farming point of view – building a smaller-scale pilot farm so that we can trial new infrastructure while monitoring the welfare of our salmon, to ensure they can thrive.

New Zealand king salmon farms

New Zealand king salmon farms

“Aquaculture is a business that rewards patience and caution. We will dip our toes into the open ocean, to carefully realise Blue Endeavour’s potential, while continuing to talk to local communities, Iwi [Māori tribes and nations] and others who also have key interests, rights and values around the ocean.”

The approval of the project producing “kaimoana” (seafood) is “a win for the economy”, the Oceans and Fisheries Minister Shane Jones added. “It’s going to provide more jobs for the Marlborough region and benefit our economy by providing sustainable kaimoana to the world.

“While this is a huge step that will contribute to the government’s goal to grow aquaculture to a multibillion-dollar industry, it’s taken far too long to get to this point.

“The Coalition Government is committed to removing unnecessary barriers to make approval processes for projects such as this quicker and easier and, in doing so, a lot cheaper.

“There are currently too many hurdles causing delays for aquaculture projects, and these delays hurt our economy and the communities that rely on aquaculture.

“New Zealand’s seafood is sought after globally. I’ve long been a proponent of the expansion of our aquaculture industry and I look forward to seeing it contribute to our export-led recovery.”

Progress towards growing aquaculture into a NZ $3bn industry has been “constrained by an expensive, lengthy, and uncertain consenting processes for new farming activities”, argued Aquaculture New Zealand last December. “Uncertainty in time and cost is a barrier for investment and innovation.

Akaroa salmon farm

Akaroa salmon farm

“Recognising the importance of investment certainty, the Government has committed to delivering marine farming permits of longer duration. This move will provide aquaculture investors with the necessary confidence to make long-term plans and investments in the sector.

Additionally, the Government’s commitment to limiting regulatory barriers will enable the aquaculture sector to reach its production potential.”

Recently the Coalition Government revealed its plans to unlock growth through planning reform. In a speech to the New Zealand Planning Institute in March, Chris Bishop, minister responsible for reforming the Resource Management Act (RMA), began arguing that planning reform in New Zealand is necessary, not just for economic growth but also to achieve the country’s aims with regard to investing in renewable energy.

He said: “So that means we need more roads, more farms, more congestion-busting public transport projects, more aquaculture, more mines, more housing, more transmission lines, more electrification, and so on. We are a pro-development and a pro-growth government and we were elected on that mandate.

“That brings me to the RMA (Resource Management Act). There are two broad objectives to our work programme. First, making it easier to get things done by unlocking development capacity for housing and business growth, enabling delivery of high-quality infrastructure for the future, including doubling renewable energy, and enabling primary sector growth and development (including aquaculture, forestry, pastoral, horticulture, and mining).

“The second objective is to safeguard the environment and human health, adapt to the effects of climate change, improve regulatory quality in the resource management system, and uphold Treaty of Waitangi settlements and other related arrangements.”

One part of the coalition’s overhaul of the RMA is the Fast-track Approvals Bill, which it says will cut red tape and give priority for regionally and nationally significant infrastructure and development projects.

Māori aquaculture pioneer Harry Mikaere said the Bill will boost the Māori aquaculture industry. Mr Mikaere, from Pare Hauraki, said that while Iwi have aquaculture space allocated, the current system for starting a fish or shellfish farm is slow, inefficient and expensive.

“The industrialisation of this country needs to get to the point where it’s not taking us 10 years to get down the track to a consent process,” he told Auckland’s Māori radio station, Radio Waatea.



Make it snappy
Currently, only one species of finfish is farmed at scale in New Zealand – the king salmon. Breeding native species of fish, such as snapper and trevally, could diversify existing markets and create a new sector for the export market, supporting future growth of the aquaculture sector.

A new project to breed “super” snapper that are more resistant to disease, grow faster, and can thrive in warmer water could help drive more economic growth through aquaculture, the New Zealand Government says.

“Climate change is affecting the condition of our oceans and this project is a practical response by a key industry to that change,” said the Fisheries Minister, Shane Jones, in March. “In the wild, snapper can take many years to grow to catch size. The ability to grow them faster, getting them from farm to plate in a shorter time, could open up a new export market and reduce pressure on wild snapper stock.”

An exemption has been granted to Plant and Food Research (PFR), a crown research institute, that allows it to take the research to the next stage. Under the Fisheries Act, fish caught for research purposes are not able to be used in aquaculture. This exemption means PFR can move its brood snapper stock to a pilot-scale aquaculture farm being developed in Marlborough.

The original parents for the research were wild caught, and those with good aquaculture traits – such as fast growth and calm temperaments – were selected as breeding stock. Over the past eight years, scientists have bred four generations from this original stock, using only natural breeding processes.

“Being able to take our research into the real world is an important step for the commercialisation of science,” said Helen Palmer, General Manager of Science Seafood Technologies at the Plant & Food Research. “By taking the results of our snapper breeding programme to a pilot scale, we can determine whether the traits we have selected for are suitable for farming and whether snapper has the potential to be a viable commercial species for our aquaculture sector.”

Shane Jones described the snapper project and Blue Endeavour as “a win for all New Zealanders”. He added: “The aquaculture industry is up to the challenge of climate change, and keen to grow an aquaculture sector for the future.”


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