Cawthron Aquaculture Park. Image: Cawthron Institute.

Cutting edge science, research and development is enriching Nelson’s economy as well as New Zealand’s seafood industry. Sophie Preece reports

A vital part of Nelson’s economy sits at the end of a quiet country road on the way out of town, beyond grazing cows and wandering pukeko, and just short of Tasman Bay. 

Here at the Boulder Bank, between paddocks and ocean, sit high tech hatcheries, nurseries and labs, where scientists, researchers and technicians are working with myriad species, including oysters, geoduck, king salmon, scampi, Greenshell™ mussels and algae. 

Nelson’s Economic Development Agency chief executive Bill Findlater says Nelson and Marlborough are more dependent on the primary sector than any other part of the country, but the likes of the Cawthron Aquaculture Park and SPATnz give a new spin to the old game. 

“Everyone keeps saying you have to go and find new business - well you don’t, you just need to make sure the business you have can be smart or smarter.” 

The way to do that is through education, research and development, he says. Nelson has three key New Zealand marine science and research organisations, including Cawthron, which is recognised internationally as a leading aquaculture, marine biosecurity, coastal and estuarine ecology and freshwater ecology institution; Plant and Food Research, which is a Crown Research Institute and has a new fish facility at Port Nelson; and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) which is focused on marine environmental research. 

Meanwhile, tertiary education provider NMIT, has nationally recognised marine and aquaculture programmes and has strong links with Cawthron. NMIT has teaching facilities at the Aquaculture Park and several of its graduates have gone on to work at Cawthron. 

Bill says it’s a little known fact that the top of the south has more people per capita employed in research and development than anywhere else in New Zealand, and the resulting value added products and intellectual property, along with employment opportunities, are key to the region’s economic development. 

“I believe the top of the south will be a really strong region going forward. It’s about providing better paying jobs, so that there is a reason for people to come here or stay here.” 

Regional Prosperity, the EDA’s economic development strategy for 2014-2020, says while science and research institutes are key contributors to the economy, both as employers and science providers, they tend not to be recognised by the public as players in the regional economy. The document emphasises that industry-based science and research enables economic development and allows knowledge to transform into commercial value. 

Specific initiatives in the strategy include developing a business case for the Marine City 2025 initiative, which would promote the region as New Zealand’s pre-eminent location for marine and seafood related research, education institutions and facilities.

Bill recently travelled to China with a group of Nelson leaders, including Mayor Rachel Reese, Cawthron Institute chief executive Charles Eason and the chief executives of the Nelson Council and NMIT. China wants the added value products Nelson has and is developing, Bill says, using mussel extracts as an example. 

“There’s a real opportunity going forward…that’s the value of having research and development organisations working in the region.” 

In the next 20 to 40 years the most desired commodities in the world will be food, food based products and water, and the top of the south has it all, he says, “but we need to be smart with what we do with it”. 

As well as enriching Nelson’s economy, research providers add valuable diversity to the city’s social make up. Cawthron employs close to 200 scientists, laboratory technicians, researchers and specialist staff from more than 20 different countries, linked nationally and 7 internationally to universities and other research organisations. That makes it one of Nelson’s largest employers, and each month more than $1million in wages is filtered out into the region. Beyond the dollars, the institute’s staff make a real impression on Nelson’s demographic, culture and vivacity, says Charles Eason. 

“A lot are involved in art societies and sports and various trusts all over the city,” he says. And many are young scientists settled with their families, “in a region where there is quite a high elderly demographic”. 

Charles says Cawthron is an exciting and dynamic institute to be leading, with a culture focussed on applied science, as intended by Thomas Cawthron when he established the institute in 1919, to benefit the top of the South. The focus then was to provide science and research to help pioneering industries, such as tomato growers beset by plant disease, or in gaining an understanding of soil types different to those of settlers’ home nations. 

These days the pioneering industries are the likes of aquaculture, which makes up a quarter of Cawthron’s work. Its Aquaculture Park works with industry on better production of oysters, scampi, geoduck and algae, and it recently worked with Sanford subsidiary SPATnz on the Greenshell™ mussel hatchery and nursery, also at the Boulder Bank. 

When that facility opened in April, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said it had the potential to generate nearly $200 million per year to New Zealand’s economy. Industry research is also leading to high value commercial opportunities, such as Cawthron’s global distribution agreement with the world’s leading chemical supply company, Sigma-Aldrich, for marine toxins developed from algae, on the back of food safety research. “It’s sort of joining the dots,” says Charles. 

The institute produces shellfish at the aquaculture park, and that production arm works “hand in hand” with research on seafood safety. That has in turn led to expertise in the analysis and understanding of the natural toxins in the environment “such that we’re producing those toxins quite deliberately to enable food safety laboratories around the world to use them as reference standards when they are doing measurements of their shellfish safety”. 

The toxins are now required by the world’s seafood testing laboratories, following work by Cawthron’s analytical chemists to improve international testing standards. “We’re going one step further to say: ‘actually New Zealand scientists, alongside MPI and industry, can be rule makers here’,” says Charles. The marine toxins have excellent export earning potential, and a teaspoon could be worth up to NZ$5million, “but, it’s a very small, niche market and they’re sold in minute (microgram or milligram) quantities”. The deal with Sigma-Aldrich saw Cawthron named in May as one of four finalists in the Commercial Deal category of the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards. KiwiNet general manager Dr Bram Smith said the agreement had already created commercial revenues to Cawthron “and demonstrates that the outcomes of publicly funded research can form the basis for outstanding commercial deals that generate significant economic returns to New Zealand". Cawthron is also working on a new research collaboration with Japanese scientists to better understand the link between food, obesity and diabetes, by looking at the natural properties of Greenshell™ mussels, paua, and several species of seaweed and algae. Meanwhile, a joint project looking at the dietary needs of king salmon - involving New Zealand King Salmon, the Cawthron Institute, NMIT and Danish feed producer BioMar, with funding from Seafood Innovations Ltd and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment – is a stand-out example of what can be achieved through collaboration between government, industry and research bodies. (Read more about this project in the latest issue of Aquaculture New Zealand). The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) is nearing completion of a report into the economic impact of Cawthron. That’s bound to join a few more dots, from the scientists working between paddocks and ocean, at the end of a quiet country road, to the “pioneering” industries helping Nelson thrive.

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