Of all the ways to hunt and fish, few are more quintessentially Kiwi than the act of gathering whitebait.
In New Zealand, whitebait refers to the larval form of five Galaxiid species. These larval fish are caught as they return upstream from the ocean to continue growing and, eventually, to spawn. From August/September through the end of November, it’s rare to find a stream that flows into the ocean without someone standing watch over their whitebait net. To call it a popular Kiwi hobby is nearly an understatement.
Across the country, however, recreational and commercial catches have been in decline. Of the five species one can catch, four are labelled by the New Zealand Department of Conservation as declining or threatened. This is due to a variety of factors including an increase in river and stream pollution from industry and farming, and the introduction of aggressively invasive plant and fish species.
The decision of the government to continue to allow whitebait fishing has become a controversial decision across the country, with many calling for restrictions or a total ban of commercial harvesting.
Hope for the future
There is, however, hope for the whitebait species of New Zealand. Located an hour north of Auckland, in the small town of Warkworth, Manāki Whitebait (a.k.a. New Zealand Premium Whitebait) is New Zealand’s first, and only, whitebait farm.
The term Manāki is a Te Reo word that means to support, cherish or take care of others. The name is fitting. Originally built as a restoration hatchery, a small, dedicated team led by Paul Decker, Managing Director of the Mahurangi Technical Institute, began by cultivating all five species of whitebait. The hatchery was constructed and initially funded using private donations. This model, however, is difficult to maintain in the long term. In the words of Decker, “we knew we can’t keep doing this, but we need to keep going.” They needed a new financial model.
Fortunately they discovered that one of the whitebait species, the Giant Kōkopu, was an ideal candidate for commercial production. The Kōkopus viability stems mainly from its breeding characteristics. Unlike some of the other whitebait species, which spawn only once after two years growth and then die, the Giant Kōkopu is capable of breeding year after year, with their oldest brood being 10 years old - this is nothing for a Giant Kōkopu, which can live for 30 years.
The Giant Kōkopu also offers a higher rate of fecundity than other species and responds well to artificial rearing environments, growing from hatch to larval harvest in only 12 weeks. A new model was born: they were going to rear Giant Kōkopu commercially to generate income for their restoration work.
This model was one that Kiwi investors could not resist. While all investors involved in the Giant Kōkopu commercial operation are Kiwis, of note is the heavy Māori interest. Whitebait is a culturally and historically important food for the Māori. Local and nearby Māori investment fund managers saw, in this model, the chance to profit while working to bolster wild Whitebait populations. This offers the benefit of allowing the long-standing cultural tradition of Whitebait collection to remain viable for future generations.
Clean RAS production
While technologically speaking Manāki is not breaking new ground in RAS, the hatchery offers a shining example of conservation-oriented rearing practices. They have been able to achieve commercial production without the use of synthetic inputs, either in the form of treatments or spawning inducers. This is born of the desire to avoid introducing foreign contaminants into local waterways via their restoration releases, and to allow the fish destined for wild re-stocking to remain as hearty and self-sufficient as possible.
The hatchery’s ability to avoid these inputs is due to its regimented cleaning routine.
“Clean and green is what we say...we do more cleaning than probably most places in the world” says Decker. This commitment to clean production has allowed them to begin the process of organic certification, which Decker believes they will achieve without issue. They’ve also become the suppliers to educational institutions such as the National Aquarium which seek to source their display fish as sustainably as possible.
Working business model
As a means of generating funds for restoration work, Manākis business model is working. The hatchery is currently doing several releases each year, including one release of 10,000 fish in Tawharanui National Park planned for May of this year. As more releases are conducted, interest from schools and environmental organizations in using their Whitebait in restoration projects is increasing. Decker foresees this trend continuing in the future.
The path to this point has not been without its challenges. Since it was the only Whitebait farm in the country, sourcing appropriate feed posed a problem. To rear efficiently, they had to switch from live to pelletized feed. Fortunately, their chief scientist, fish nutritionist Dr. Tagried Kurwie, was able to work with their feed producer to develop a Whitebait specific formulation, allowing them to achieve an FCR of 1.2:1. Culturing live feed for hatchlings, broods and stock earmarked for release still presents a challenge, as techs must learn the ins and outs of multiple culture techniques.
In the early days the team at Manāki was also having trouble with certain environmental cues causing their stock to change to a darker colour. In a discerning marketplace that demands translucent to light coloured Whitebait, this was troubling. However, the team was able to determine what was causing this transition, and they have been able to sort out these issues.
Another great challenge has been keeping the saltwater system full. Being located about 5 km from the nearest saltwater, Manāki must regularly truck in salt water to keep the RAS system topped up.
One release-stock specific challenge has been developing a procedure for “wildizing” the fish meant for release. In the weeks leading up to their release, none of the staff can let themselves be seen over the tank. This is so that in the wild these fish will not associate humans with feeding and will thus be as skittish and survival-oriented as their wild born counterparts.
Like any well-built operation, Manāki was determined to overcome these challenges because, at the end of the day, staff knew they had something special to offer the discerning public. In the words of Paul Decker, “everyone says it’s the best product they’ve ever tasted.” This is, in part, because they’re able to purge the fish before harvest.
Purging the ‘bait
Purged Whitebait offers a cleaner, purer taste without any of the unpleasant grittiness one can find in wild Whitebait. They’re also able to kill their harvest instantly and maintain the cold chain to market. The lack of stress response and short turn-around time between harvest and sale means the fish end up being the best looking on the market.
“You can see the freshness in them…they’re glistening,” says Decker. “They’re the sturgeon of the Pacific.”
Having proven to the investors that this can work, Decker and his team are looking toward a bright future. They are currently assessing sites for a new, modern facility. This is an important next step because within the next couple of years they hope to be producing 50-100 tons per year.
Barriers to export
They are also working to remove barriers to increase exports. Currently, their product will occasionally be stopped during export because Whitebait is flagged as an endangered species. The team at Manāki is focused on ensuring these holdups are avoided.
They’re also hoping to increase international recognition of the delicious, high quality nature of their New Zealand Whitebait. In many other national markets, Whitebait is used a generic term for low quality white fish. Naming the company’s Whitebait Manāki is, in part, to help differentiate it, an approach comparable to that of the Malepeque Oyster growers.
With the lessons of the past in their back pocket and the vision of a new facility in their eyes, Decker and the team at Manāki Whitebait will continue to change the Whitebait market for the better.
Chinquihue Foundation, a Chilean non-profit NGO founded in 1989 with support from the Chilean Government and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), has operated a hatchery in Puerto Montt since 1996. Its aim is to produce seeds and seedlings from different resources and thus promote small-scale aquaculture, helping artisanal fishermen become farmers.
Located along the coastline in Chincui Bay -12km south of Puerto Montt - this production unit specializes in benthic invertebrates as well as microalgae and macroalgae. In the beginning it was focused on Northern scallop (Argopecten purpuratus) and Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), but many other species have also been reared here over the past two decades. This includes such species as red abalone (Haliotis rufescens), green abalone (Haliotis discus hannai), Chilean sea urchin (Loxechinus albus), clam (Venus antiqua), Pacific clam (Gari solida), Sea asparagus (Ensis macha), Chilean abalone (Concholepas concholepas), Chilean mussel (Mytilus chilensis), Magellan mussel (Aulacomya ater), Choro mussel (Choromytilus chorus), Gracilaria seaweed (Gracilaria spp.) and Giantkelp (Macrocystis spp.).
Currently, there are only mussels in the facility along with the auxiliary cultivation of microalgae to feed those mussels. These are primarily diatomeous and flagellates such as Isochrysis galbana, Nannochloris atomus, Tetraselmis suecica, Chaetoceros calcitrans and Chaetoceros neogracilis.
Pilot level facility
The hatchery operates at pilot level and is located beside the port terminal belonging to Chinquihue Foundation. It is composed of two laboratories, one of 300m2 intended for mollusks and echinoderms and another one of 150m2 for macro-algae. There is also a 315m2 greenhouse for mollusks and echinoderms within these premises.
All rooms have the proper equipment and infrastructure systems required for seawater adduction, aeration, heating and thermal isolation. The facility includes 10 large farming tanks (three of 3,000 liters and seven of 2,500 liters) combined with 100 tanks of 200 liters each.
There are three types of mechanical filters: Prefilters are at the seawater suction pump and in hoses that bring water into the facility. Then, once in accumulation tanks, water is depurated in bag filters and finally passed through a UV system.
Regarding staff size, there were up to 12 workers in this hatchery during the original five-year project funded by JICA. However, this number has been reduced to just five now, who are exclusively employed to work with mussel species.
“In terms of installed capacity, we could produce batches of 30 million pre-metamorphic larvae every two months,” says Viviana Videla, manager of this hatchery.
Although there are three different mussel species native to Chile (Magellan mussel, Choro mussel and Chilean mussel), only the last one is of large commercial interest and represents 100% of the farmed animals and products exported by the local mussel sector.
With harvest volumes that range between 270,000 and 290,000 tonnes per year, this is the second largest aquaculture industry in Chile, with about 70,000 exported tonnes and US$ 200 million in revenues annually. In geographical terms, this is an industry that operates exclusively in the region of Los Lagos, providing about 17,000 workplaces in the area.
Viviana Videla noted that the Chilean mussel is a native species which has a good range of tolerance to changes in temperature, drying and salinity. “It is quite a pliable and resistant species,” she said, adding that this is a blue mussel, very similar to the Galician mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) in terms of size, meat color, texture, flavor, etc.
In the wild, this species fertilizes its spat in natural beds, floating within the plankton until they attach themselves to a solid substrate to grow. The production cycle of this bivalve lasts for about 21 months from spat to harvest.
Operation and objectives
This facility’s operation is mainly oriented to detection and identification of Chilean mussel larvae in plankton using epiflourescence microscopy. This is intended to generate useful information for small farmers dedicated to mussel seed collection.
“If we inform them that there is natural spawning in a specific area, they can place collectors and catch seed. Before, they planned this process in connection with certain dates or season,” Videla explained.
In addition, the hatchery has been working on the production of mussel seeds and developing technologies to farm mussels in land-based facilities.
“This is technologically feasible,” she added, “but we need to develop and refine our model, since production costs are still a problem. It is difficult to compete with the costs of seed collection in the wild. The challenge is to produce at competitive costs or to change the paradigm, producing adults instead of just seeds and reducing the number of production stages, for example, and thereby cutting costs.”
Start with the breeders
Mussel seed production starts with the selection of breeders, usually from farming sites; then comes the conditioning of breeding animals, aimed at achieving the maturation of the gonad. Once breeders mature, they are induced (with temperature and UV irradiation) to expel gametes.
A process of cleaning and selection of embryos is performed after fertilization. This lasts for two days and leads to the first larval stage, straight-hinge veliger, commonly known as 'D larva', because of its shape like the capital letter D. This animal is about 80 microns long and continues growing until after about seven days (depending on the temperature) it enters the umbonate larvae stage, at which point the hinge is no longer straight but rounded, which is commonly known as 'umbonate larva'. This stage lasts for 10-12 more days.
When the statocyst becomes visible, it is the first sign that larva (also called ‘eyed larva’) are close to settling, metamorphosing, and fixing through the byssus. Then, the 'foot' appears and starts walking, adheres to a substrate, loses the cilia and stops swimming. At this point it generates the byssus and, when the mollusk is fixed to a substrate, its shell begins to calcify and take color. This stage is usually known as 'post larva'.
“When the mussel reaches 10mm long we call it seed, although it is a juvenile, which continues to grow until it becomes an adult (˜7cm). In this species, the first sexual maturity (with functional gonad) occurs when the specimen reaches about 3.5 cm in height,” Videla explained.
She also described some advantages of producing seed in a hatchery: Specifically she noted that mussel seeds can be produced at any time of the year and makes it possible to select breeders according to desired phenotypic characteristics, for example, growth rate or faster detoxification of toxins such as PSP. Another advantage was de-seasonalizing production in order to maintain processing plants in operation more months every year.
Most of the species reared in this facility over the past 21 years were investigated and produced through governmental-funded projects.
“In general, if the seed market does not exist and the production of adults is not massive, once the project is finished you do not have enough funds to continue. Although our hatchery is not so small, it is not of commercial scale either. It is intended for research at pilot level. Therefore, production is always more oriented to applied research,” she said.
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