WE’RE on a giant floating ring about seven kilometres off Port Stephens, and it’s feeding time.
You can’t see more than two or three metres under the surface, but flashes of silver underbelly, by my guess, puts the Kingfish numbers below at about two or three hundred.
I’m assured the actual figure is much, much higher.
On the gangway, aquaculture policy officer Graeme Bowley takes a handful of meal pellets and flings them into the water.
The surface erupts.
A hundred metres away, a seal is sunning its fin.
It is not really your typical ag project. But according to Mr Bowley and DPI fisheries researcher Dr Igor Pirozzi, aquaculture and fish farming doesn’t have an option to fail.
The first major milestone for the state’s five-year commercial Yellowtail Kingfish trial is on the horizon. Twelve months ago, following an international expression of interest, Tasmanian company Huon Aquaculture were selected as a research partner for the Department of Primary Industries to investigate new aquaculture in NSW waters.
The commercial-scale Kingfish trial at Providence Bay - the result of an existing offshore research lease being boosted to 62 hectares - now has year one of five under its belt, with the first harvest expected to take place around November.
At the moment Huon monitors two specially-designed pens in the water, with another three pens going in over the next 12 months, each about 60 metres across. There is capacity for 12 sea pens all up in the trial.
The nets underneath the floating rings once held fingerlings bred at the DPI’s onshore research facility, growing from 30 grams into more than five kilograms of famously sweet, pink flesh.
We won’t be seeing NSW Kingfish on our shelves anytime soon, with plenty of research on fish diet, feed conversion, and effluent discharge to come. However, staff at the DPI’s Port Stephens Fisheries Institute - and Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair - are nonetheless excited.
“Currently more than 85 per-cent of seafood in NSW is imported from other states or overseas,” Mr Blair said. “We want this to change, giving people more options to buy local seafood. The data from this trial will help set the standard for aquaculture in NSW.”
That the Yellowtail Kingfish is being groomed as a farmed resource in NSW isn’t new. A fast-growing local species, it has been the subject of research at Port Stephens since 2008 - and is seen by many as the state’s answer to the Tasmanian salmon industry.
It is also not new that aquaculture is being eyed as an increasingly important sector for NSW. Oysters, prawns, and fish from land-based farms contribute $65 million annually, and 1700 jobs.
The existing commercial fishing industry is also a historic and proud sector in NSW, shared among 1000 operators. But it is farmed fish that both DPI’s Graeme Bowley and Igor Pirozzi say will have an increasing role, both domestically and as part of evolving global protein needs.
“We live in a time when, globally, commercial fisheries have plateaued and aquaculture is taking up the growth,” Dr Pirozzi said. “Currently 50 per cent of the seafood eaten globally is from farms.”
Dr Pirozzi said it’s inevitable that fish farming has to succeed, both ecologically and to feed the world.
“Globally we can only catch, sustainably, 85 million tonnes of fish a year. We hit that mark in the 80s,” he said. “And we’ve increased our population by billions. Something’s got to make up the deficit.”
Graeme Bowley said traditional land-based farmers were often dismissive of farmed fish.
“We’ve been farming animals and crops for thousands of years. But we haven’t really been farming fish. That’s only been in past 30 years.”
Dr Pirozzi: “From the consumer’s perspective... there’s no issue with purchasing farmed terrestrial products… meat, chicken… It’s just a culture difference. Certainly in a lot of Northern European countries, in Asia, farmed fish is the way things are done.
While it makes sense that DPI would spruik the benefits of fish farming, and the Port Stephens project in particular, establishing the trial hasn’t been without challenge.
Earning and maintaining a social licence has been front and centre. Government points to Department of Planning and Environment approval in regard to any fears over pollution, visual amenity, impact on recreational activities. It says ongoing monitoring is strict and thorough.
“The Huon Sustainability Dashboard provides transparency to operations and allows the community access to data,” a spokeswoman said. “This is followed through for the Marine Aquaculture Research Lease with marine fauna data, water quality and benthic studies going up on the web regularly.
Dr Pirozzi sand Mr Bowley said NSW had learned from other Tasmanian operations in regards to pollution.
“The idea is to maintain low feed conversions, which means less effluent, and also making sure the effluent that does come out is not nutrified,” Dr Pirozzi said. “If we can formulate a diet where the fish utilise nitrogen and phosphorous, which are generally seen as the problem elements, then they won’t be secreting it.”
A healthy relationship with the local community is also essential for the project to succeed
The DPI played no small part in the Love Seafood Love Port Stephens, including opening the doors at the Taylors Beach research facility for the community. Mr Bowley said most locals were intrigued and interested.
“They can see how it works and why we need it now probably more than ever.
“The Tassie guys are very keen to let you know you’re eating Tasmanian Salmon. Maybe one day we’ll have NSW Kingfish on the shelf. That’s the end goal.”