Offshore farming presents a ‘whole new ball game’
“I’m a farmer,” says John Young, of Clearwater Mussels.“There is a parallel with land farming. Both are climate driven, dependent on sunlight to produce quality sugars in grass or algae.”
The Lincoln University Foundation agreed with that sentiment in 2015 when it gave its South Island Farmer of the Year Award jointly to Clearwater Mussels and Omarama Station.
Foundation chairman Ben Todhunter said the mussel farm and the sheep-and-beef property had each demonstrated excellence in farming, and promoted themselves so that others in the industry could learn and be inspired.
“No one was more shocked than me,” John Young says. Innovation and sustainability are key factors in the rise of Clearwater. The mussels grow on ropes suspended from buoys.
The buoys look like large black plastic barrels. As they wear out, they are removed, ground up into powder, melted down and then made back into new ones.
The ropes are made from recycled rope fibres, and the cotton ‘stockings’ that initially surround them to give the tiny mussels their anchor, dissolve over a period of days to weeks, depending on the state of the water.
This work is all done by Clearwater staff. Algal blooms come and go. If testing shows a bloom’s presence, production stops until it has gone and the mussels have recovered.
Bacteria from such things as land-based animal faeces can be washed out to sea by rivers in flood.
All the rivers and hills in the mussel farm’s catchment area have rain-gauge monitors, which are used as a predictive tool to track the possible presence of bacteria; harvesting is halted until testing shows the mussels have siphoned the intruders away.
Clearwater Mussels is based at Havelock, and has farms in the Marlborough Sounds and Golden and Tasman bays. The farms cover 500 hectares, ranging in size from 2.5 to 80ha.
John Young studied science at university. His studies and love of diving got him involved in mussel farming, and he and his wife, Lyn Godsiff, established their first farm in Kenepuru Sound 40 years ago.
Their 37 staff work either in the base or on the harvesting boats.
Teaming up with Talleys gave the business the outlet it needed for processing and marketing. The Cawthron Institute and NIWA have provided the science for innovation.
John reckons a few thousand staff are now directly or indirectly employed to get the industry’s product to market. Green shell mussels are the stock.
The spat or larval stage come from 90 Mile Beach or Golden Bay. The microscopic spat cling to seaweed washed up at 90 Mile, collected by locals, and transported quickly to Havelock.
Golden Bay spat wash round from unknown sites on the West Coast, says John. Once they are observed by monitoring staff, there’s a two to threeweek window to lower ropes for the spat to cling onto.
Southern spat fatten out from September to January, northern spat from January to June. “I like using spat from the wild,” he says.
“Other industry players are producing spat in a hatchery, and having some success, but there is a long way to go for that to be viable and they might not be as resistant to bio-diseases.
Those growing in the wild have lots of genetic variability and may have a better chance of survival. “Farming off shore is a whole new ball game: storms, rough water, there’s danger in open water.
For six or seven years now, we have been farming four kilometres off shore in Golden Bay and Tasman Bay. There are huge waves and currents, so we needed to develop gear to withstand a storm.
We’ve built a new boat, Clearwater Resolution, new floats, and new methods of attaching the floats with shock
Innovation, sustainability key factors in the rise and rise of Havelock-based company absorbers.
It has a higher cost structure so we need to use equipment and men to maximum advantage.
Staff work 24/7, shift on, shift off.” Sixty-seven per cent of Clearwater product is sold frozen in the half-shell; 18% is used for oil for arthritis sufferers, human and animal.
“We can’t produce enough to satisfy world demand. We could grow three times now – it’s a beautiful place to be.”
After winning the award, the company got a lot of calls from farmers wanting to come and see their business: “We had groups coming. I loved the brotherhood of those farmers.
We were all on the same page. The camaraderie was fantastic. We all want to produce food economically, environmentally and be the best in the world.”