The former Ocean Beach Freezing Works in Bluff has a new business on the block – a pilot project to evaluate commercial land-based whitebait farming.
"This project, led by Manāki Whitebait, is the result of 16 years of research into the breeding of all 5 New Zealand whitebait species,"says Steve Penno, the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI’s) director of investment programmes.
"Recent investment of $998,000 from MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund (SFF Futures) has helped take this research to the next level.
"We congratulate the Manāki Whitebait team, which has hit upon the right formula to ensure a year-round supply of whitebait.
"Manāki’s research shows that commercially viable production of the species is possible, and the next step at this new facility will be to scale up production to continuously service domestic demand."
Manāki is owned by Tahu Whaoa Group Holdings, the commercial arm of the Ngāti Tahu-Ngāti Whaoa Runanga Trust. The company matched the SFF Futures funding, along with investors in the Bluff Ocean Beach site.
Manāki’s project manager Paul Decker who led the project with Dr Tagrid Kurwie says the Manāki story started with an aspiration to restore and enhance the native species that make up the whitebait catch.
"We started out at our Warkworth research facility trying to breed the whitebait species in captivity for their eventual release back into restored habitats," says Mr Decker.
"We managed to successfully breed all 5 New Zealand whitebait species, 4 of which are endangered.
"We identified the giant kōkopu (Galaxias argenteus) as the only commercially viable species, and now have 50,000 breeding adult giant kōkopu whitebait. This is extraordinary, given the Department of Conservation estimates up to 80,000 giant kōkopu whitebait adults in the wild.
"It’s been an enormous undertaking to get to this point, and we’re really excited to lead the way with farmed whitebait that will provide a year-round supply of whitebait to consumers, reduce the pressure on wild fishing stocks, be able to supply fish for restoration projects, and provide new jobs for the local community."
Mr Decker says the Bluff facility is testing key factors as the system is scaled up.
"We’ll be testing egg fertilisation rates, hatch rates, harvest ratios, biomass, and water change levels to achieve optimum survival and optimum feed. We’ll also work on developing a marketing plan and setting up supply chains."
Mr Decker says the biggest expense for commercially producing whitebait in giant tanks is electricity, to ensure optimum water temperature. The second largest cost is water.
"We decided to relocate to Bluff as there’s already a licensed fish facility there with easy access to freshwater and seawater. This is essential for breeding whitebait as we need to be able to replicate their journey from river to the ocean.
"In Warkworth we needed to transport salt water in, which proved too costly."
Steve Penno says the project supports many of the goals set out in the Government and food and fibre sector’s Fit for a Better World roadmap aimed at lifting productivity, sustainability and creating jobs to drive New Zealand’s economy.
"It also fits with the Aquaculture Strategy, which has a goal of $3 billion in annual sales by 2035 following a sustainable growth pathway and using innovation to add value."
Mr Decker says the Government funding has fast-tracked the pilot project significantly.
"We’re aiming to supply fresh whitebait for consumption from February 2023. Without Government support it would have taken us years to reach this point."