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Seafood Industry Aims for Sustainability

Press Release: 7 March 2008

Seafood Industry Aims for Sustainability

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New Zealand seafood is a high value export that is in demand worldwide. The fishing industry’s sustainability credentials are based on an internationally regarded quota management system, and our marine farmers have ambitious growth plans. But where to from here…as pressures increase to reduce carbon emissions, wild fish stocks are under pressure internationally, and our aquaculture industry faces space constraints.

The seafood industry is a valuable export industry – worth over $1200 million in exports in 2006-07. About 20% of those exports are from farmed species, and the aquaculture industry has ambitious growth targets – to be a billion dollar industry by 2025. With high end markets in Europe, Asia, and North America keen to get more of our seafood, the Government is also determined to grow this sector. Yet this growth will only be possible with industry commitment to meet sustainability obligations, insists Gillian Wratt, CEO of Cawthron Institute in Nelson, who will be a keynote speaker at the New Zealand Institute Food Science and Technology Conference in Rotorua from 24 to 26 June.

The NZ seafood industry is an interesting one for those looking for local case studies of how to achieve sustainable food production. Our wild fisheries have been managed by one of the most advanced systems in the world—the internationally regarded fishing quota management system—but like wild fisheries globally, there is limited potential for sustainable growth; fishing is a fuel-intensive industry, so increasing fuel prices and carbon emissions are significant issues. Aquaculture has excellent growth potential in NZ but is constrained by space limitations.

The Government recognises the economic potential of the seafood industry both in terms of export earnings and employment opportunities, and has identified aquaculture as one of the key areas ripe for further development and growth.

‘The aquaculture industry is currently worth over $300 million dollars a year, and is looking at tripling that figure in the next fifteen to twenty years,’ adds Gillian. But the industry has been stagnant for the past ten years, in part due to the foreshore and seabed debate. Now, with Government support, it is ready to move forward and expand.

The Resource Management Act charges local councils with the responsibility to identify areas of their coast for marine farming – as Aquaculture Management Areas (AMAs). But in some regions there has been strong opposition to further expansion of aquaculture, where the farms are seen as having a negative visual impact on our seascape.

The source of this opposition can be found in the mounting pressure on our coastal land from high end housing developments, translating into a cultural perception about what is, and is not, acceptable use of our coastal waters. ‘It seems contradictory that people don’t mind looking out on a vineyard, maybe even see it as adding value to their property, but they object to a shellfish farm,’ adds Gillian. And ironic that our highly regarded aquaculture industry has been facing one of its strongest challenges—not from the global consumer’s demand for environmentally sustainable food—but from local communities.

Yet in terms of sustainability, the aquaculture industry does a lot right...production is low on carbon emissions, and shellfish—which are our predominant farmed species—feed off naturally occurring algae. And the global marketplace wants our seafood, especially lucrative markets in Europe, Asia, and North America, because it is seen as a high quality source of protein from an unpolluted marine environment.

If this export market is left untapped due to the growing debate about aquaculture’s visual impact on the seascape, the country as a whole will suffer economically. And unless we are able to demonstrate its sustainability and address carbon emission issues, the market will suffer in the food miles debate.

It has been a difficult ten years for the aquaculture industry. Fortunately it is an industry that is committed to its future and is well supported by researchers: Gillian and her team at the Cawthron Institute; as well as scientists at Crop and Food Research; and NIWA.

Cawthron’s research spans from carbon emissions and environmental impacts of seafood production, to technology for selective breeding and shellfish hatcheries, to researching the risks associated with algal and natural toxins in seafood, and quality testing of New Zealand seafood exports. As with all New Zealand’s food industry there is a range of sustainability challenges across the production and processing spectrum.

As a keynote speaker at the NZIFST Conference, which is focusing on food sustainability, Gillian Wratt will bring her wealth of experience working in research and policy to address what the seafood industry, in particular aquaculture, needs to do to be ready to meet the challenge of sustainability.

Is the aquaculture industry a lighthouse in the storm – a beacon of hope in the choppy seas of sustainability? Make sure you hear Gillian Wratt’s encouraging address at the NZIFST Conference.

The NZIFST Conference will be held in Rotorua from 24 to 26 June. For further information about the Conference or to read conference updates visit


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