High quality Marlborough salmon sought after by Japanese consumers
Feeding time at King Salmon's Te Pangu salmon farm on the Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds creates a flurry of frenzied action on the water surface.
Ten's of thousands of sleek chinook king salmon come to the surface to gorge on tiny pellets of feed sprayed out into the pens from a revolving boom.
The salmon will repeat the process up to 200 times a day as they fatten up over the next 16 months from 70 gram smolt to four kilogram salmon ready for diners of five star restaurant tables in New Zealand, Japan, Europe and the United States.
Te Pangu sits in a sheltered deep water bay about 40 minute boat ride from Picton and is the largest of New Zealand King Salmon's five salmon farms operating in the Marlborough Sounds.
The salmon farm is ideally placed to take advantage of the tidal flow which helped replenish the pens with fresh sea water every seven to eight hours.
The total consented area of 13.6 hectares includes 18 pens, anchored to the sea floor by ropes able to withstand up to 20 tonnes of pressure, and bristling with thousands of salmon waiting for the next feed.
Head feeder Maurice Liberona directs the feeding process from his office overlooking the pens.
Closed circuit television shows the fish on the surface, and 15 metres below, circling and rising to snap up a pellet.
Liberona can control the feeding process with the touch of a finger from his computer console.
When the salmon have had enough to eat he flicks the switch to turn off the food supply until the next meal time an hour later.
The micro feeding pattern keeps the fish alert and boosts their appetite until they double their biomass to a 4kg harvest weight by June each year.
Liberona is a salmon farm veteran with 20 years of experience under his belt.
He is one of three fulltime staff who live on the floating restaurant on a week on, week off basis.
The trio are helped by four staff who arrive to work from Picton each day.
"It's a lifestyle," Liberona said.
"I have a passion for aquaculture."
Watching on is Daiso president Junichi Hakuta, and King Salmon representatives in Tokyo, Tadashi Sato and NZKS Japanese area manager Rob Morris visiting the salmon farm.
Morris is a Kiwi who speaks fluent Japanese after spending the past 25 years living in the country.
Daiso is one of Japan's largest food service outlets specialising in distributing seafood products to more than 100 four-to-five star hotels in Tokyo and Osaka, Morris said.
The company operated out of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, one of the largest fish markets in the world.
Marlborough's Ora King premium grade salmon is sought after by Japanese consumers who enjoy it served raw as sashimi, he said.
"Marlborough salmon is more expensive than other salmon, such as Atlantic salmon from Norway, in Japan because of its high quality and high oil content compared to other salmon species sold in Japan."
Only one per cent of all salmon sold in Japan is grown by King Salmon.
Daiso take about 30 tonnes of ora king salmon annually but is looking at increasing that up to 150-200 tonnes within the next 3-4 years, Morris said.
Ora King seawater operations manager Baz Henare said King Salmon focused on quality, ahead of quantity.
"We can only produce 6500 tonnes a year compared to salmon farms in South America which produce more 100,000t," he said.
Each year a select batch of salmon, numbering in the thousands, are bred from an annual brood.
The batch, known as 'evaluation fish', are assessed at maturity to maintain quality standards, Henare said.
"It is much the same way as wine is described as having a good, or average vintage, we do the same with salmon.
"It's a challenging business and in reality King Salmon are just small players in a huge global fish farm market.
"We are an unique hands-on operation a long way from our markets but we can produce quality fish without the high tech many of our competitors use."
When it came to harvesting between 18-30t of fish each day, the salmon are calmed using a natural anaesthetic sprayed into the pens.
The anaesthetic helped reduce stress before the fish are hauled up in a net and sluiced through a conveyor system, nose to tail, to be stunned, bled out and placed on ice.
The salmon are collected in a specially designed bulk tanker, full of ice slurry for rapid chilling, parked on board a boat moored against the pens.
The salmon are taken by road to Nelson to be processed and eventually arrive at a fish market somewhere in the world between 48-72 hours.
Nothing is wasted, even the blood is collected to be taken back to Nelson.
Henare said the company worked hard to keep a step head of the opposition.
A harvesting technique, for example, had been devised which was off limits to filming and competitors.
- The Marlborough Express