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Hatchery technologies and open-sea farms provide the platform for new endeavours with green-lipped mussels

Hatchery technologies and open-sea farms provide the platform for new endeavours with green-lipped mussels

A little over five years ago I asked the question as to whether green-lipped mussels could be the next heavy lifter for the New Zealand export economy. At the time, the Government had a goal of doubling exports by 2025, which seemed exceedingly optimistic.

Both then and since then I have been frustrated by what I see as naivety within the broader community as to how New Zealand is going to pay its way in a complex and competitive world. There often seems to be unwillingness to grapple with the hard realities of a small isolated country in the South Pacific with a rapidly growing population and increasing inequalities.

I have listened many times to speakers who say that services rather than goods are going to be our salvation. When I ask where within that framework might we find a competitive advantage, I typically hear only generic terms such as ‘technology’   Our two big service industries are tourism and the education of foreign students.

The problem with tourism is that the competitive advantage relates to the natural environment which has a limited carrying capacity. As for education exports, direct experience tells me that New Zealand is well down the ranking in terms of educational status. Price and lure of residency have been key driving factors.

I therefore come back to primary industries and related food offerings as the economic sector where we have a unique competitive advantage. The problem has been that we are running up against resource constraints. Where are the next heavy lifters going to come from that can support dairy, meat, timber, kiwifruit and wine?

In early 2015 I was on a Lincoln University field trip to Marlborough with my colleague Marvin Pangborn, where we were focusing on alternative land uses. Having looked at dryland sheep and wine, we visited the Sanford green-lipped mussel factory at Havelock. That led me on a journey of discovery which made me think that mussels, despite lots of challenges, could indeed be a heavy lifter. Looking back, I see that I referred to mussels on multiple occasions in articles written that year, but then I let the topic slip away from my writings as I focused on other challenges.

In recent weeks, I have come back to thinking about green-lipped mussels, largely by a chance meeting at Lincoln University where I still give guest lectures. After one such session, one of the students, Maegen Blom, introduced herself to me and explained her involvement in a family business growing and marketing premium branded (Mills Bay) green-lipped mussels. We subsequently agreed to meet up over a long coffee and see what we could learn from each other. 

I learned that the industry has indeed moved on nicely since I last wrote about it. Back in 2015, the latest figures I could get were for 2013 when exports were worth $181 million. In 2019, exports were $333 million. That represents a compound growth rate of around 10 percent per annum.  I also found out that the overall industry (exports and local) markets around $500 million of product. An intriguing part of this is powdered nutraceuticals focusing on omega3, glucosamine, selenium and other micronutrients.

Back in 2015, I came to the conclusion that ongoing development of the industry would depend on two key factors. The first related to solving the problem of being reliant on wild spat to seed the mussel farms, with arrival of this wild spat being a chance event relating to spat-covered seaweed arriving on our shores.  The second issue related to developing off-shore growing capabilities beyond the sheltered bays of the Marlborough Sounds and various other bays around New Zealand.

From Maegen Blom, I learned that good progress is being made on both counts, and that her own Mills Bay family business includes a new farm in the open waters of Golden Bay using nursery-produced spat.  Mills Bay operations are linked into the Sanford operations. Sanford has been the leader in association with the Cawthron Institute in developing the relevant science of nursery-grown spat, combined with the selection within that science program of superior strains of green-lipped mussel.

Back in 2015, the Mayor of Opotiki had written to me explaining their local efforts to grow mussels in off-shore waters. Scratching around now on the internet I see evidence that those efforts have led to considerable progress and that large farms are now being developed in the Bay of Plenty. I have more to learn as to the details, but it looks exciting.

I also know from long experience that new endeavours never go smoothly, and that new challenges will emerge. In particular, I am aware that fish such as schnapper greatly enjoy raiding spat and juvenile mussel nurseries. I am sure that other challenges will also emerge.

One of the reasons that green-lipped musses are so exciting is that you don’t have to feed them. They have super-efficient filtering systems, and a single mussel can filter well over 300 litres of passing water a day while searching for phytoplankton and algae. This is very different from most forms of aquaculture where the fish do have to be fed, with that setting up its own issues of pollution.

Equally exciting is that green-lipped mussels are unique to New Zealand. Other countries may eventually be able to set up their own green-lipped mussel farms but New Zealand has a huge start. Mussels have evolved in the temperate waters of the South Pacific, and other countries may be challenged to replicate those conditions. And they won’t have the wild spat to get the industry started.

In marketing, one of the first issues is how to differentiate a product from other products on the market. Having a unique species to focus on is a great start. 

Maegen and I spent some hours talking about those broader issues of marketing. I was a little shocked to learn that although Mills Bay has its own premium branding and a specific focus on value-adding through to restaurant consumers, most of New Zealand’s green mussels, although sold under a generic GreenMussel trademarked brand, are essentially sold as a commodity. 

In the same way as for many other food-based products, we do a great job in New Zealand with the quality assurance and logistics of physical supply chains that get product out to the world, but struggle to get close to those final consumers. Maegen and I agreed that there is untapped potential and that this is exciting. Both of us were also realistic to recognise that reaching out to final consumers in distant parts of the word is very challenging.

I came away from our session excited on two counts. First, I think that farmed mussels can indeed be a heavy lifter and help to solve some big challenges that New Zealand society faces on a very broad front. Second, it was exciting to know that there are young New Zealanders out there who have the passion to do something about it.

For anyone wishing to know more about the Bloms and their mussel endeavours, they featured in a remarkable 2019 Country Calendar programme that can be accessed here.

*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. His articles are archived at You can contact him directly here.

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I looked at the Mussel farms in Chile, they really don't want green lipped mussels competing with native mussels.
Personally I prefer the smaller mussels, Bluff oysters (chilensis) is found in Chile but they prefer the pacific oyster. Chile is having some social problems at present, I waiting to make a small investment, just waiting for the dust to settle.
Best place i have seen for Oyster farming was off Tofino on Vancouver island, there is a hell of a lot of scope for growth but size is an issue so many oysters go oversize and get downgraded. Spent a day with Taylor seafoods in Olympia and they were incredible, lots of Mexican workers overseen by an ex dairy farmer from matamata.
China is a huge exporter of shellfish Taylors said 1/2 a million metric tonnes of Scallop flesh exported per year. Two thirds of worlds aquaculture production, just a massive industry in China.

Basic take is the huge multinational seafood companies are formidable competition.

Whakatohea mussels from opotiki. Big and fat and we'll liked locally. Perhaps the biggest difference to land based primary industry in the region is that the intention is to do all processing and have all jobs locally based.
The snapper are a bit of a bonus for everyone except the farm. The new marina and harbour entrance should help access for recreational fishos out to the farm which the owners are quite happy with so long as rules are abided by. Just opens up another tourist type market for the town.

'snapper a bonus for everyone except the farm' - not sure this is right. A key enabler of aquaculture growth in a country whose people are heavily invested in the coastline is obtaining consent for expansion and without public support the industry would stagnate. Recreational fishers understand the increased fish benefits they get from mussel farming and it's no accident that usually you'll get a friendly wave from mussel barge crews as you close in to target the snapper congregating near their working barge.

Finally, a positive externality from primary industry!

On;y if you purposely choose to ignore.

As the writer does.

Not all of us want to live life all-consumed by existential dread. I'm very happy grilling snapper with a cold glass of wine, the sun will come up tomorrow.

There were self-indulgent Sumerians too, one supposes.

I too sometimes fall into that trap and caught myself BBQing up some lamb chops the other evening. The difference being I recognise my privileged and tenuous living arrangement made entirely possible by fossil fuel extraction and burning. I am actively reducing my consumption and not leaving it up to some other beggar to fix for me which it won't be. No existential dread here, life is good for the time being, but will it be for your grand-children or theirs?

"There often seems to be unwillingness to grapple with the hard realities of a small isolated country in the South Pacific with a rapidly growing population and increasing inequalities."
Can do nothing about being isolated. Rapidly growing population is easy to fix and quickly, within a year. Increasing inequality will take time, at least 10 yesrs.
Perhaps KW indirectly acknowledges that former governments and the current government will not impede the rapidly growing population, other than the covid hiccup and are likely to do little about inequality

Keith, interesting article. It takes me back to the late 1950s and early 1960s when a neighbour used to take us out to Ihuamatao beach, Mangere where we would harvest scallops when the tide was out. We used to shell them and I remember we would each take home a preserving jar full of the shelled scallops. My mother used to make scallop fritters using a soft butter-based batter........nothing in the world more tasty, with the possible exception of white bait fritters. By comparison I find mussels and oysters rather insipid.
Do you think it would be possible to farm scallops, or white bait for that matter. If we could, I'm sure they would become export gold.

Let’s disseminate this; put it in context.

First, there’s the Upton Sinclair bit about a man and his job. Hold that thought.

Then there’s the spatial element. This is a continuation of the ‘acreage’ problem Catton referred to in Overshoot. We’ve run out of surface paddocks, so let’s commandeer the ocean surface (it’s sooooooooo big… we thought of the planet in about 1800). Forget that it a Commons, let’s grab it. Forget biodiversity (and the fact that man and his attendant animals ALREADY make up 97% of the vertebrate biomass; wildlife is technically extinct); let’s ‘farm’ it. For ‘profit’. Duh.

Farming, the way we do it – the way we do fishing too – is extractive. Depletive. Needing of inputs. So too, it turns out, are mussel and salmon-farming. The problem is that before we came along, every nutrient-source was being assimilated into the aquatic food-web. What we’ve done is play Jenga with that food-web, pulling this and that species out; even a ‘full’ quota represents only 25% of the original stock. Even the top predators are missing; Hectors Dolphin have a coastal range of about 30km, ad a viable pod is at least 50, more like 100, due to slow reproduction-rates. So they mush have been contiguous around our coast and now……..aren’t.
Furthermore, we’ve raped the Marlborough Sounds land often to the bone, letting much of it – along with farm run-off – end up on the bottom of the Sounds. Goodbye Benthic community, hello dead mud. Goodbye food-web, hello toxic blooms.

And we’ve done the illogical more and more and more thing and……hello, they’re not growing so fast anymore. In fact, not growing nearly at all. Why could this be? So we look for more nutrient going past per time (or for more flushing in the case of salmon waste). Commandeering more acreage, rather than amending our short-term extractive ways. And that nutrient isn't free, Keith, it belonged to something else already.

For what, Keith? Some digital tokens in a computer somewhere, that we hope to cash-in for something sometime? All those introduced-to-the-acreage mussels MUST be displacing something, and the somethings were already stressed because of our land (non)management practices.

Try always asking whether something is sustainable (as in: long term maintainable) and preferably whether it is regenerative.

And remember Upton Sinclair. :)

Make it stop....

You can make it stop by changing your approach (mentioned upthread).


Seriously, you (and Keith) need to read this:

It won't, Te Kooti. Adam Smith nailed the attitude way back when:

[This] man of system ... is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon the chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces on the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it . . . It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him, and not he to them.

Read the link, Waymad.

It's a matter of facts vs wishes. Last I heard, denigrating the purveyor of facts didn't change them.

TK is a common kind: 'I just don't want to know'. Represents a majority, one suspects.

And you Adam Smith reference is interesting - it was written about the same year Watt improved on Newcomen's engine, before the Industrial Revolution and bfore we hit 1 billion planetary inhabitants. If you have to dig that far back to support your belief, you might want to think again? The more interesting post is the one Keith hasn't put up, rebutting what I wrote in the first place. Two 'I don't want to know this so I'll denigrate the messenger' posts are hardly scientific rebuttal. Come on, you are smarter than that.

Mussels can indeed 'clean' water due to their being filter-feeders, but you have to ask how it got dirty in the first place, and what filtered material you're eating if you eat them?

This is an article on a successful and growing primary industry, not climate. Just because I don't subscribe to your climate disaster narrative doesn't mean I do not care deeply about the environment and ecology and I actively contribute and support a number of initiatives personally. Just quietly, it's not my people who have stripped NZ of it's resources.

I would wager I will be leaving NZ a better place than 99% of the climate disaster cult, just as my ancestors have.

No it isn't. It's an article about how an unsustainable approach can fool itself into believing it can continue expanding. It's sad, considering that some folk consider themselves mature.

I am not about Climate; don't try and categorise - it's the first step in avoidance denigration.

Don't use words like environment and ecology, if you'd don't understand 'existential'. The word 'lite' comes to mind.

Yes, your ancestors stripped the place of resources. Fired much of the Mackenzie Country chasing the Moa to extinction. Just as all variations of human have done to large protein-on-the-hoof species. Fought each other over resources, ate each other after (energy-sapping) battle.

And 'actively supporting a nmber of initiatives' means diddly squat, just as 'giving aid' means diddly squat if the IMF/World Bank are screwing your recipients by orders of magnitude more.

you are asking a tiger to go vegan ... in reverse. Not bloody likely.