Source: Article from FISH December 2016

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With planning approvals finalised, and crucial research underway, Australia appears to be poised for a surge in aquaculture production

By Catherine Norwood

PrawnsIn 2008 it seemed optimistic, but not unreasonable, that Australia would be producing 100,000 tonnes of fish and seafood from aquaculture by 2015. At the Skretting Australasian Aquaculture 2008 International Conference and Trade Show, then-chairman of the National Aquaculture Council Craig Foster offered a list of targets for the aquaculture industry, based on innovation in technology and production that were by then underway (FISH June 2008).

Some of the anticipated growth has not eventuated and aquaculture production in 2014-15 reached about 85,000 tonnes. However, several major developments and expansions are underway or in the final planning stages, which suggests a surge in production in the next two to five years.

Tasmania's Atlantic Salmon sector production more than doubled to 48,614 tonnes from 2006 to 2015, and the sector has a growth strategy that targets a further doubling of production by 2030. Atlantic Salmon remains the strongest sector to see increased growth over the coming five years.

More prawns

The prawn sector is set to be another big mover in aquaculture in the next decade. The Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Advanced Prawn Breeding is sequencing the genome of the Black Tiger Prawn as part of efforts to advance domestication of this species and launch production on an industrial scale.

Project Sea Dragon, an initiative of the Seafarms Group, expects to begin construction next year on an industrial-scale facility in the Northern Territory, capable of producing 100,000 tonnes of Black Tiger Prawns. The venture is scheduled to come on-line in 2019, capitalising on these projected advances in breeding.

Expansion is also underway in Queensland, where stringent environmental regulations related to water discharges into the Great Barrier Reef have restricted development for many years. Pacific Reef Fisheries, James Cook University, CSIRO and the Queensland Departure of Agriculture and Fisheries have all worked on the development of new (government-approved) water treatment options. This has been key to winning approval for Pacific Reef's plans to expand production from 1000 to 4000 tonnes, with construction of new ponds to begin next year.

White fish options

Yellowtail Kingfish was expected to be a major growth sector and although volumes have increased to 1200 tonnes, this has still fallen well short of projections for 2015 that ranged from 5000 to 15,000 tonnes.

Cleanseas Tuna has been the only commercial producer. It is now one of several partners in a $6 million Australian Government research project coordinated through the FRDC to improve production.

Other partners include the South Australian Research and Development Institute, Indian Ocean Fresh Australia in Western Australia, NSW Department of Primary Industries and Huon Aquaculture. It is expected that production of Yellowtail Kingfish will double in the next five years.

The aim is to establish a white fish equivalent to Atlantic Salmon in the domestic market – a position both Yellowtail Kingfish and Barramundi producers are seeking to fill.

Chris Calogeras, executive officer of the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association, says an industry survey indicates production reached about 6000 tonnes in 2016. The sector's target is for 25,000 tonnes by 2025. Chris Calogeras anticipates this will be achieved, particularly with new aquaculture leases announced in Western Australia that will increase production capacity from 1400 to 20,000 tonnes. "We already have the commitment from our members for expansion," he says. "Now it's just a matter of making it happen."

Policy initiatives

The new aquaculture leases in WA are part of 'investment-ready' aquaculture zones being developed to fast track new investment. Executive officer at the Pearl Producers Association, Aaron Irving, says changes to WA legislation are also expected to open pearl leases to the production of other species. "At a policy level, small changes like this can really advance development," he says.

At national level, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is developing a national aquaculture strategy to coordinate aquaculture development, which has increased in value from $806 million in 2006 to $1.186 billion in 2015.

The development of this national strategy follows the release of its National Aquaculture Statement in 2014 by then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture Senator Richard Colbeck at the World Aquaculture Conference in Adelaide. The strategy is being drafted and is expected to be finalised in 2017.

The FRDC also sees the potential in aquaculture. Developing new and emerging aquaculture opportunities is one of three national priority areas for research the FRDC will lead on, as identified in its RD&E Plan 2015-20. It has established a subprogram of experts and a budget to lead investment in research areas to help the commercialisation of new or emerging aquaculture species (FISH June 2016). f

Australian aquaculture production: Actual and projected production

Species 2006-07
Fish 36,101 65,758 62,802 81,450
Crustaceans 3,583 7,600 5,425 10,155
Molluscs 17,912 21,500 17,216 20,500
Seaweed       5,000
Total 57,596 94,858 85,443 117,105

Source: FRDC and ABARES


Comparison of actual and projected aquaculture production

Product 2006-2007
Projection 1 tonnes
Looking forward 2021-2022
Projection 2 tonnes
Salmon and trout
25,253 40,000 48,614 Growth has continued with improved production from existing areas. This is expected to continue at similar rates and may accelerate if additional farming areas, likely to be offshore, are established. 60,000
Tuna 7,486 13,000 8,418
Tuna growth predicted in 2008 was based on a strategy to ranch fish for longer, growing them to a larger size, which would increase overall tonnage. This did not eventuate. No major increase likely other than from slight increases in quotas, allowing more fish to be ranched. 7,500
Silver Perch

322 361 314 Silver Perch likely to continue at similar levels. 350
Barramundi 2,590 7,000 3,772 Barramundi is likely to see more growth in production in the next few years due to new farms and expanded area on existing farms. Growth in production after industry consolidation and improved farming efficiency has already seen good growth, with preliminary estimates putting 2016 production at about 6000 tonnes. 8,000
Yellowtail Kingfish   5,000 1,200 Trials in Western Australia and New South Wales with more favourable growing conditions are expected to increase commercial production in 3-5 years. CleanSeas Tuna in South Australia also plans to increase its current 1200 tonnes production. 5,000
(including Kingfish)
450 397 484
Includes: Murray Cod, Cobia, Tropical Groupers.
NSW in particular has seen significant growth in Murray Cod production. Cobia and Tropical Groupers may see some growth in coming years with potential new entrants and investment in RD&E through the new and emerging aquaculture subprogram.
TOTAL 36,101 65,758 62,802   81,450
Prawns 3,284 7,000 5,282 With new approvals recently granted there is likely to be good growth over the next few years in Queensland. Potential for significant growth with Project Sea Dragon in Northern Territory. 10,000
Yabbies 110   34   40
Marron 89 600 64
Redclaw 100   45   45
TOTAL 3,583 7,600 5,425   10,155
Edible oysters 14,299
15,000 12,689
With new approvals recently granted there is likely to be good growth over the next few years in Queensland. Potential for significant growth with Project Sea Dragon in Northern Territory. 14,000
Pearl oysters       Research and product development for a commercial pearl meat product is underway in Western Australia.  
Blue Mussels 3,145 5,000 3,678 There is development underway and the industry is expected to reach the original projection of 5000 tonnes within the next five years. 5,000
Abalone and other 468 1,500 849 Current development in the abalone industry is likely to see good growth towards the original target in the coming five years. 1,500
TOTAL 17,912 21,500 17,216   20,500
Seaweed       Emerging as an option in co-production with other aquaculture. 5,000
GRAND TOTAL 57,596 94,858 85,443   117,105

Source: FRDC and ABARES


Black Tigers an industry in the making

Black Tigers PrawnsProject Sea Dragon is a $US1.45 billion Black Tiger Prawn venture from the Seafarms Group, based at several sites across northern Australia with the grow-out facilities to be on Legune Station in the Northern Territory. With an export-oriented production target of 100,000 tonnes, it has been granted 'major project' status by the Australian, Northern Territory and Western Australian governments.

The Seafarms Group already has farms at Cardwell and Ingham in Queensland that produce about 1500 tonnes of Black Tiger Prawns and Banana Prawns a year under the Crystal Bay brand. These operations have provided a proving ground for the production systems it plans to roll out at Legune Station over eight years.

Construction of the first 1120 hectares of ponds at Legune Station is expected to begin in 2017, with commercial production to start in 2019.

Breeding initiative

Seafarms Group is the only producer to be part of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Advanced Prawn Breeding, along with James Cook University, CSIRO, Australian Genome Research Facility, University of Sydney and Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie. The aim of the five-year project is to sequence the genome of the Black Tiger Prawn. More than 40,000 DNA markers have already been identified to help develop a breeding program based on genomic selection.

Seafarms Group's executive director Chris Mitchell says that the cost competitiveness of aquaculture compared with producing other sources of animal-meat protein means large-scale aquaculture will play an increasingly important role in meeting rising global demand.

"The project will leverage Australia's comparative advantages in biosecurity, marine science, access to key raw materials and expertise in large-scale resource and agricultural development. A project of such large scale means Australia can be a low-cost producer, and Australia's strong biosecurity credentials and the project's relative remoteness will assist in mitigating biosecurity risks."

Queensland challenge

Construction is also scheduled to begin in 2017 on an expansion for Pacific Reef Fisheries in northern Queensland. In addition to its farm at Ayr, which produces more than 1000 tonnes of prawns a year, the company will build new ponds at Guthalungra, where its hatchery is based, taking annual production capacity to about 4000 tonnes.

The expansion at Guthalungra has been 15 years in the planning, with investment in the past eight years into water discharge treatment options. General manager John Moloney says this has been the main challenge. The company operates within the Great Barrier Reef water catchment so must meet strict nutrient discharge requirements.

To achieve this, new water treatment systems, including mangrove wetlands and seaweed beds, have been developed and verified in partnership with James Cook University and the university's commercial offshoot MBD Energy. The Guthalungra farm is 260 hectares – of this, 25 hectares will be set aside for seaweed beds. Mangrove wetlands have also been established on the company's farm at Ayr.

"The reality is that we're in a much better position to expand now than when we first put the plans together. The time is right, from a lot of different perspectives. The prawn farming industry has matured a lot in the past five years."

Marketing initiatives have helped to build domestic demand, which far exceeds local production. Australia imports 70 per cent of its prawns and John Moloney says while domestic producers will not compete on the smaller, lower-value prawns widely used in food processing, there is room to replace the significant volume of larger, cooked product being imported. f


Barramundi sector poised for rebound

BarramundiBarramundi production is little more than half of that predicted a decade ago, but two projects on the drawing board have the potential to increase production to 25,000 tonnes.

In Western Australia, Marine Produce Australia was this year given ministerial approval for an 800-hectare expansion, bringing the total of its Cone Bay Ocean Barramundi lease to a production capacity of 15,000 tonnes. The lease is part of the 2000-hectare Kimberley Aquaculture Development Zone, the first of at least two investment-ready aquaculture zones being established by the WA Government.

Cone Bay Ocean Barramundi is the only seacage producer in Australia, with several others in the Northern Territory and Queensland having succumbed to climatic hurdles. Operations manager and Nuffield scholar Steven Davies says Marine Produce Australia has spent more than a decade refining production processes suited to the conditions at Cone Bay. Scaling up will also be done with new markets in mind. "As it stands we can't keep up with domestic demand, however, we are excited by the prospect of taking Australia's only true saltwater Barramundi to the world," Steven Davies says. He will be investigating export market opportunities, particularly in Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong, as well as the development of value-added and consumer-ready products.

Investment in R&D has been fundamental to ongoing productivity improvements at Cone Bay Ocean Barramundi, including working with its supplier of juvenile fish, MainStream Aquaculture, based in Victoria.

MainStream Aquaculture has reported more than 20 per cent improvement in growth rates from its breeding program, which is entering its fourth generation. Group managing director Boris Musa says the improved performance has already resulted in Barramundi becoming more productive to farm than Atlantic Salmon, despite Atlantic Salmon's 30-year head start.

Meanwhile, in the Northern Territory, the family-owned business Humpty Doo Barramundi has already finished stage one of new saltwater ponds that will expand its annual production from 1700 tonnes to more than 3000 tonnes within the next three years. Managing director Bob Richards says that using current technology, the business could comfortably expand its production to 10,000 tonnes as markets are developed.

Humpty Doo Barramundi also secured its export licence this year and has sent product trials to China and the US, and has hosted delegations from Singapore and Japan.

"But at this stage the domestic market is our main market. We deal largely with the wholesale and food service industry, but we believe there is unrealised opportunity in large retailers. There is a growing sophistication in the retail sector, with more focus on strategic relationships than playing the market," Bob Richards says. "Reliability of supply, quality of product and stability of price are key."

Biosecurity is one of his greatest concerns, with a number of diseases identified in Barramundi produced overseas, which he says have the potential to threaten not just aquaculture, but also Australia's wild stocks. He says an updated import risk assessment is urgently needed, given that the last one was in 1992. The business's R&D initially focused on environmentally sustainable systems. "We now have good systems and our focus has moved on to mechanisation."

This work has included a joint project with other Australian businesses to develop an acoustic feeding system to improve feeding efficiency.

Bob Richards says on the finance side he has found bankers' attitudes towards aquaculture have become more positive. "In our last expansion, in 2012, the banks would not put any collateral value on either the stock or the improvements we had already made to our business, and it was difficult to raise funds. There's been a shift now – we're being courted by banks and they're prepared to be more flexible in what they will value." f


Murray River fish ready to join the party

Murray CodWidely recognised as an icon of Australia's inland waterways, Murray Cod is emerging as a species with significant commercial potential. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15 Murray Cod farmgate production value increased on average 29 per cent a year, to more than $3.6 million, with several new entrants to the industry.

Hatchery techniques for both Silver Perch (Bidyanus bidyanus) and Murray Cod (Maccullochella peelii) were developed in the 1970s at the Inland Fisheries Research Station at Narrandera, to stock farm dams and impoundments – NSW has been the main centre for commercial production of both.

Since 1994 Silver Perch has been the focus of expanding freshwater aquaculture and projections were for incremental growth. Murray Cod was barely a blip on the horizon. Manager of aquaculture for NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), Ian Lyall, says the Silver Perch industry pioneered the farming of native freshwater fish species. Although the number of growers has consolidated in recent years, those remaining are operating profitably to meet existing market demand.

Today, there is a new groundswell of support for Murray Cod. From just 16 tonnes produced in NSW in 2006-07 Murray Cod production rose to an estimated 230 tonnes nationally in 2014-15 – 176 tonnes of this from NSW, with smaller quantities from Queensland, Victoria and South Australia.

Ian Lyall says the research into the fish handling, production systems, diet, health management, and even some marketing for Silver Perch, is also proving valuable for Murray Cod. Earlier this year the FRDC and NSW DPI jointly funded a review to identify R&D needs for Murray Cod. This was presented at a freshwater aquaculture forum in Griffith in September 2016 in conjunction with the Freshwater Native Fish Association and NSW Aquaculture Association. It attracted more than 120 participants and Murray Cod was a major focus of the two-day event.

"One of the exciting aspects of Murray Cod is the potential to incorporate it as part of a diversified farm business, to integrate it with cropping or hydroponics and reuse the water," Ian Lyall says. Silver Perch and Murray Cod are popular as a live fish sold in metropolitan centres, particularly to Asian restaurants. However, Murray Cod offers greater versatility for chefs, and graces menus at many high-profile Australian restaurants.

Among those investing in Murray Cod production is Timpetra Resources. It has bought Silverwater Native Fish hatchery and fish nursery Bidgee Fresh. It has also bought Riverina Aquaculture, which built new ponds this year to expand its production. Timpetra chairman Ross Anderson says this will increase capacity from 40 to 100 tonnes within the next few years.

"Using contract farmers, we want to expand production to 900 to 1000 tonnes within five years," he says. "We need to build the domestic market for a start. There is high demand from chefs for the fish, which has clean, white flesh with a high fat content. Western restaurants particularly want two to three kilograms of whole fish. We've also had interest from overseas but they want large quantities we can't supply yet – 500 tonnes or 1000 tonnes."

The potential of Murray Cod aquaculture featured on ABC's Landline in September. f