New Zealand Premium Whitebait, the country's only commercial whitebait farm, produced its first commercial harvest last year and is planning to invest in a larger facility this year that will enable it to step up production and start selling overseas.
The company, predominantly owned by Maori interests, was formed in 2014 to commercially farm whitebait after the know-how was developed at the Mahurangi Technical Institute in Warkworth to enable whitebait, the juveniles of five species of fish, to be reintroduced into streams affected by Auckland's Northern Motorway extension.
It produced its first commercial harvest from its Warkworth base of about one tonne last year in a season running from August to December and will soon be seeking investment for a new saltwater facility to grow whitebait at NIWA's Bream Bay aquaculture base south of Whangarei. The larger facility is expected to help boost production to between 20 to 30 tonne next year, from an estimated 5 to 6 tonne this year, and expand the length of the season, the company's chief executive Jeremy Gardiner told BusinessDesk.
Sales last year were limited by the small production, with about half going to premium local restaurants and the remainder sold in limited amounts at New World and Pak 'n Save supermarkets through the Foodstuffs cooperative. However, Gardiner said the company intends to use the established networks of its distributor Leigh Fisheries to also test overseas markets this year, tapping prominent kiwi chefs such as the Michelin-star awarded Matt Lambert, of the Musket Room in New York.
"We will be really picking and choosing the sort of people that have some sway in the market in terms of getting a new food product onto people's plates and then supporting that," Gardiner said. "It will take some time to build international markets. It's not a product that's very well known."
One of New Zealand's most expensive seafood, whitebait is currently sold overseas for about $80 a kilogram, and Statistics New Zealand data published this week shows the country exported $108,688 worth of whitebait last year.
With four of New Zealand's five native whitebait species threatened, Gardiner expects commercial fishing of whitebait in the wild will eventually be restricted to protect the species, and sees a good opportunity for his company to offer a sustainable supply year round.
"I think if we are able to get 50 to 60 tonne in the next couple of years and then grow from there, there's certainly room in the market to be quite a bit bigger than that," he said.
The increased investment in larger facilities, while costly, will enable the company to step up production and turn a profit in the next few years, he said.
"The nature of the fish is the bigger they get the more eggs they produce - we will have more eggs than we can do anything with for quite some time," he said. "It will then just be down to how quickly we can build demand and then we can build production behind that and away we go. Biologically all of the conditions are right for it, it is really just building the physical requirements, and then getting it into market."
The company's investors aim to fund the investment themselves if possible, said Gardiner, who is the son of Wira Gardiner, a former deputy chair of Te Ohu Kaimoana, and former National MP Pauline Gardiner.
Its whitebait is sold under the brand Manaki, a Maori term referencing hospitality and care for the environment.
Shareholders of NZ Premium Whitebait include Ka Ora, a company whose owners include the Gardiners.