Iwi-owned Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd is taking over New Zealand's only oyster hatchery and nursery in a move that Nelson's Cawthron Institute says will double production and be good for the wider aquaculture industry.
AFL is 80 per cent owned by all New Zealand tribes and 20 per cent by Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Maori Fisheries Trust set up by the Government in 2004 to allocate fisheries assets.
It is the country's largest pacific oyster producer, owns half of Sealord Group and a range of other seafood businesses and has more than 300 employees.
Cawthron's oyster hatchery and nursery at the Glen Aquaculture Park north of Nelson is producing an annual 12 million spat which are released to farmers at 8mm, around the size of a small fingernail.
Chief executive Charles Eason said with AFL's involvement this could reach 24m over the next 12 months, creating new jobs at the Glen and offering security of supply right across the industry.
The only other source of spat is from the wild, and the mainly North Island industry has been plagued by a virus that kills its stock, costing hundreds of jobs.
Professor Eason said he couldn't divulge the amount of the AFL investment, but it wasn't in the millions of dollars.
"It's not a pot of gold - more like a continuous revenue stream. It takes the burden of doing the full-scale commercialisation off us to some extent, and will allow us to do more of the research and development that we're good at doing."
Over the past few days AFL and Cawthron had reassured large and small oyster producers of the continuing commitment to supply spat to them, and this was safeguarded in the agreement.
"It's a small industry and we want to be pulling together as one," Prof Eason said.
"If you look at it as a pipeline, we'll still be doing the early stages, delivering the babies if you like, and then they'll be nurtured and taken on to be the right size to go out to the farms around the country by AFL. We'll still be designing the breeding programme to produce the characteristics in the oyster that they want - that's the bit we should be doing, and where the industry wants us to focus."
Cawthron has developed the scientific breeding programme over 10 years.
The new agreement means that from next month, both New Zealand's largest Pacific oyster (AFL) and Greenshell mussel (SPATnz) hatchery operations will be based at the Cawthron Aquaculture Park.
AFL owns New Zealand's largest oyster export companies, Pacific Marine Farms and Kia Ora Seafoods, which specialise in the export of Pacific oysters that are grown at 11 harbours from in the Far North to the Marlborough Sounds.
AFL aquaculture general manager Don Collier said the company had plans to significantly expand the existing facility. It has already employed additional staff to work at Cawthron Aquaculture Park.
"Cawthron Institute is a world leader in aquaculture research, and we are excited to be strengthening our longstanding partnership with them to support the future development of New Zealand's oyster industry."
Pacific oyster farming is the smallest sector of the New Zealand marine farming industry, accounting for 6 per cent of aquaculture exports, worth $16.2m in 2009.
Domestic sales were estimated at $9m. In contrast, mussel exports were $202.5m and salmon $61m.
But until the virus hit towards the end of 2010, oysters were seen as one of the keys to growing aquaculture into a billion-dollar sector by 2025. The sector has since been in survival mode, with the Cawthron selective breeding programme seen as its best hope.
Cawthron spent $750,000 developing the hatchery.
- The Nelson Mail
Does Nelson deserve to be classed as a city?Related story: (See story)