From mussels to oysters, with festival organising in between
After helping launch the Havelock Mussel Festival 12 years ago Marlborough Sounds oyster seed supplier Aaron Pannell now prefers to fly under the radar.
Apart from a break to milk cows on the West Coast in his early 20s Pannell has been involved in some way in the region's aquaculture progress since he was a teenager.
He began on a mussel harvester scrapping the smaller blue mussels off the longlines holding tonnes of the greenshell variety, and graduated to skippering barges before doing an about turn to focus on providing Pacific oyster seed to North Island customers.
Along the way he found himself leading a group of volunteers to organise an annual mussel festival in Havelock.
The event had proved its worth to help raise the aquaculture industry's profile in the region, and internationally, said Pannell who stepped aside as chairman seven years ago.
Recently the festival, to be held on March 19, was listed in The New York Times, along with a Belgian beer fest, and Italian truffle festival, as one of the culinary events around the world to attend this year.
"In the beginning we were just a group of people who lived in the community who thought it might be a good idea to have a festival to help showcase the mussel industry," he said.
"We were determined it to be a family event and have as much community involvement as possible so any proceeds would be used back in the township."
After working at a frenetic pace for six months to get the first festival underway, everyone's expectations were blown away, he said.
"We started with zero funds and zero plans, throwing around ideas in the committee of what we thought would work the best.
"It was nerve-racking, very stressful, we didn't have a clear idea if it would work, or not.
"But we had commitment from the community to go ahead to make it a permanent event each year."
The first festival attracted 5000 people, far in excess of what was expected.
"It was chaos, but unexpectedly successful," he said.
"We budgeted for 1500-2000, so the loos overflowed, there weren't enough rubbish bins, I lost my voice halfway through the day.
"We just flew by the seat our pants through the whole thing from start to finish.
"By the end we proved we had the basis of the right formula."
In 12 years the festival had given back $280,000, $3800 to community organisations, and $14,000 profit reinvested into the following year's event.
It is now underwritten by Marlborough District Council, and run by a professional event manager, Marlborough 4 Fun.
Pannell stepped aside as festival chairman around the same time as he moved into a new career in the aquaculture industry.
He had come to the industry much the same way as organising the mussel festival.
"I'd been dairy farming and when the neighbour bought a farm for $2 million I knew I would never own my own farm."
He worked briefly with his father as a kayak guide before being offered a job on a mussel harvester with Marlborough Mussel Company, working his way up to earn his skippers ticket on barges in the Marlborough Sounds, eventually moving into the research and development sector.
MMC formed a joint venture with Aotearoa Fisheries-owned Pacific Marine Farms to grow juvenile oyster seed in the Marlborough Sounds for the North Island oyster farmers who were struggling to combat a serious herpes virus attacking and killing Pacific oysters.
"We found we could avoid the virus if we grew the spat in the Sounds before sending them to the North Island to mature, because the Sounds wasn't affected by the virus."
When MMC was sold to Sanfords, Pannell was ready for his next move to establish Marlborough Oysters, based in Okiwi Bay.
Milder in taste than its stronger flavoured Bluff cousin, the Pacific oyster is the world's most popular oyster, he said.
Marlborough Oysters take spat, measuring 10 millimetres and raised by the Cawthron Institute and Pacific Marine Farms in Nelson, to the Sounds to grow in mesh bags on the water surface until they reach 50mm.
At this stage they are big enough to be on-sold to PMF and trucked to the North Island to grow into mature Pacific oysters.
The venture suited Pannell's idea of adding quality to a high value niche product.
"We are producing a premium product to reach the consumer fresh when it is shucked," he said.
"Aquaculture has come along way in Marlborough but we are still not progressing as we should have from the research that has been done.
"We have a lot of reliance on mussels and salmon, and now oysters but we should be creating more value from other species we have in the Sounds, like farming fin fish.
"Water space in the Sounds is limited so we have to farm a higher value product from what space we have."
- The Marlborough Express