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Kingfish Promising For Aquaculture


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Kingfish promising for aquaculture

A huge nautical pocket of warm nutrient-rich water, the Firth of Thames holds the key to the newest and most promising player on the New Zealand aquaculture stage - the kingfish.

Thousands of 20-centimetre fingerlings are ready and waiting at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's hatchery in Northland to kick-start what some hope could be a $1 billion industry in farmed fish within the next 20 years.

That goal hinges on New Zealand's shift away from its present reliance on mussels, oysters, paua and salmon.

With worldwide demand for seafood fast outstripping what can be drawn from wild stocks, more countries are looking to develop fish farming quickly and intensively.

The United States will announce a plan this week to allow deep-water fish farm development in its waters to bolster its aquaculture industry, which supplies less than a quarter of the US$4.5 billion (NZ$6.6 billion) of farmed seafood consumed by Americans every year.

The beauty of kingfish farming stems from the economic use of space pioneered by the salmon industry and its value on the global market.

New Zealand's aquaculture earnings are low internationally, at less than $2000 a tonne, compared with Australia's $30,000 a tonne from higher-value species such as tuna and prawns.

With the prospect of raising 1200 tonnes of kingfish in one 10-hectare block, estimates of the market value are up to 30 times what mussels earn for the industry.

Japan grows and immediately eats 99 per cent of the world's farmed kingfish, importing more to satisfy local demand, which leaves significant potential for New Zealand to exploit.

But for all the potential, kingfish farming is an idea that has yet to prove its worth.

A land-based farm at Parengarenga Harbour in Northland folded three years ago, owing more than$7 million, and other operations have yet to show significant commercial success.

Nonetheless, Niwa and New Zealand Aquaculture are convinced that new and high-value species such as kingfish are the only way to move from an industry now worth $300 million a year to one worth $1 billion a year by 2025.

Industry body New Zealand Aquaculture chairman Peter Vitasovich says the success of salmon shows the potential in New Zealand's coastal waters and technology for fish farming, and kingfish is the next big thing.

The ease of converting mussel farms into salmon farms in recent years has created an export industry worth $80 million from an area that takes up less than 2 per cent of the mussel farming area nationwide.

Niwa acting chief executive Bryce Cooper says kingfish are worth much more per unit of space than mussels, and there were even efforts to look at how the two could be grown together.

"That can serve two things, it can give greater returns and not necessarily require large tracts of new sea space."

But though kingfish may be the key to unlocking New Zealand's aquaculture potential, the key to unlocking the Firth of Thames is mired in red tape.

A national ban on new aquaculture areas ended two years ago with the introduction of new management laws.

But despite the Government's committing to get behind the industry growth targets, not a single local authority has managed to get its head around the new rules in the past two years, and aquaculture growth has stalled.

Environment Waikato, the regional council that covers Thames, and anecdotally one of the more proactive councils, is still only in the thinking stage of a change to incorporate kingfish, with months of public consultation still to come over the mere possibility of establishing rules for finfish farms in the Firth.

Even a five-hectare trial farm could be months away, but Environment Waikato environmental planner Graeme Silver says the delays are necessary if years of objections and appeals are to be avoided.

"It's about providing the community with the certainty that environmental sustainability will be in place before it goes commercial," he says.

"How long it takes depends entirely on how contentious it gets."

International botch-ups have sullied perceptions of fish farms: Thailand converting mangroves into shrimp farms, Norwegian and Scottish salmon farms harming biodiversity, Chinese carp farms becoming overcrowded and sucking up resources.

"There have been horror stories from overseas about fish farms, and there may be people that have heard those and will be worried," Mr Silver says.

The Wilson Bay block, where the first kingfish farms in the Firth of Thames could be tested, backs on to the western Coromandel peninsula between Waikawau and Kirita Bay and close to a cluster of tiny towns that know the value of aquaculture, and the potential cost of those anti-attitudes.

Four hundred hectares of mussel farms in Wilson Bay are a sight to behold, black buoys stretching as far as the eye can see.

Turning out about 20,000 tonnes of mussels a year, the aquaculture management area is only 40 per cent developed and holds potential for a further 800ha that would provide a total of about 50,000 tonnes of greenshell mussels a year.

"The growth of the industry has seen the provision of jobs for those that would have left the district," Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Philippa Barriball says.

She heads a forum to facilitate the shift to finfish farming in the Firth of Thames, working with neighbouring Hauraki District Council, local iwi, fish farmers and Environment Waikato to help the consultation process.

She says the benefit goes beyond industry estimates of $21 million a year in wages and associated community income for every 10,000 tonnes of mussels harvested from the farms they have at present.

Salmon farms in Marlborough have generated 54 full-time jobs a hectare, she says. The kingfish equivalent for a five-hectare farm in the Firth would put at least 270 jobs into the community.

Jobs on the farms keep people in the area, mean more children in schools, more dollars in tills and flow-down effects such as making the Coromandel towns more attractive for doctors and teachers.

"Every dollar that is earned will go through the community three times, so for a small community it's very important," Ms Barriball says.

With tourism a major player in the region, and a large majority of her ratepayers more worried about the views from their baches than the local economy, she knows she has to walk a fine line.

The region's natural environment is critical to its residents, she admits, but she sees the Firth as the right place for fish farming.

"We would far rather see that area developed than a pristine greenfields environment like the east coast (of the peninsula).

"Finfish would require a smaller footprint for a higher yield, so there is potential there to have a much smaller impact. We are committed to delivering that."

In the meantime, while the regulatory and consultation wheels inch forward, the industry watches, communities cross their fingers, and thousands of little fish wait.

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