A Nelson-based hatchery pioneering selective breeding of greenshell mussels is raising the quality and earnings from the seafood, and providing skilled jobs.
Officially opened two years ago at the Cawthron Aquaculture Park, the Shellfish Production and Technology New Zealand (SPATNZ)'s hatchery at The Glen, near Nelson, takes the element of chance out of mussel farming to help growers produce better quality mussels.
The Nelson scientists have used some surprising and ingenious methods to get greenshell mussels to breed.
Light, temperature and small vibrations produced by a pump has emerged as the best combination to get the mussels going, encouraging them to produce maximum quantities of sperm and eggs.
SPATNZ operations manager Dan McCall said the vibrations were used to recreate the spat's natural environment.
"It's just a way of simulating water movement over the mussels' gills, and it's part their spawning - they think their eggs and sperm in the wild are going to be distributed and carried away by the current - it's just one of the many tricks we have to get the most out of the brood stock."
The first of 500 tonnes of greenshell mussels from the joint Government-private company programme are about to be harvested in the Marlborough Sounds.
Once the programme is in full swing the SPATNZ hatchery could produce about 30,000 tonnes a year of adult mussels, adding $200 million to the industry. Last year 80,000 tonnes of greenshell mussels were harvested nationally.
It takes two years for mussels to grow from spat into adults when they can be sent to marine farms around the country.
McCall said the programme was still in its early days, with a current focus on breeding for maximum productivity, with faster growth rate and fatter mussels for longer periods of time.
"We're still in a 'figure-it-out' mode...and still forever coming up with challenges, efficiencies and processes - it's a late stage pilot-scale sort of project."
Audits had shown the hatchery spat tasted just as good as in the wild but grew better in the production sense.
The hatchery's seven-day-a-week operation employed about 18 staff with more recruitment expected as the hatchery progressed.
SPATNZ is a partnership between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and seafood company, Sanford, through a seven-year Primary Growth Partnership.
McCall said the hatchery also enjoyed a "huge involvement" with Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology's Aquaculture programme.
"It is jobs for Nelson - the 18 on our books aren't robots that turn up and do this stuff - everyone's right into it - it is a pretty exciting field and this is one of our many milestones," he said.
"We're just optimising everything now - who knows where it will go from there - the rest of industry, further expansion, we don't know what the future is going to hold."
As a Nelsonian, McCall was proud of what had been achieved to date, although he believed many locals weren't aware of the world-leading technology and processes taking place in the region.
The research promises to give farmers more control and certainty over growing the indigenous shellfish, worth $350 million to the economy.
SPATNZ head, Rodney Roberts said consumers would benefit from the captive-reared mussels because they would be a more consistent size.
"We are now able to produce billions of mussel eggs each month and the great news is that these are growing into strong, faster growing and more consistent mussels," Roberts said.