A $13 million "state-of-the-art" aquaculture facility has opened in Tauranga, with plans to explore the potential to turn a local pest plant into a useful product.
The latest addition to the University of Waikato's Coastal Marine Field Station precinct at Sulphur Point was opened by the university's Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Alister Jones today.
The precinct houses about 1000 square-metre of recirculating aquaculture and 24 algal tanks with a total cultivation volume of 60cu m, split between freshwater and marine systems.
Jones said the facility is the first in New Zealand to provide infrastructure for seaweed cultivation from nursery stages to grow-out and aims to deliver closed life-cycle aquaculture production of seaweed.
"The facility and algae produced here will form the basis of cutting edge and interdisciplinary research.
"We think it is really about a sustainable diversification of New Zealand's aquaculture industry and it really provides a strong starting foundation point for the blue economy."
Located on Cross Rd, opposite the Coastal Marine Field Station, Jones said the industrial site is perfect for the heavy-duty work that will take place.
The facility was funded by the Tertiary Education Commission's Entrepreneurial Universities programme and the University of Waikato through an algal biotechnology research project.
Jones said the facility provided the university with an opportunity to create new courses from the Tauranga campus that would be unique to New Zealand.
Leading the algal biotechnology research project was seaweed biologist Dr Marie Magnusson.
Her objective was to develop bioproducts that would support a sustainable seaweed aquaculture industry in New Zealand, due to what she sees as a "huge potential" for this market thanks to New Zealand's temperate climate.
"We're exploring ways of using sea lettuce to develop food and agricultural products."
Magnusson said macroalgae represented a largely untapped resource for materials and bioproducts that would enable sustainable diversification of New Zealand's aquaculture industry.
"We're researching commercial applications of seaweed and potential ways to use macroalgae and their extracts for agricultural, human and animal health, and materials science applications."
Seaweed is a huge multi-billion dollar industry in Asia, particularly red and brown seaweed, Magnusson said, but the potential of green seaweed was yet to be fully explored and maximised.
Tauranga Harbour is subject to recurring blooms of green seaweed or sea lettuce, she said, and while the blooms were deemed a pest, Magnusson believed it may hold the key to a "lucrative industry" in the Bay of Plenty.
"Sea lettuce has a range of applications from watering your garden with seaweed extract, to eating it, to promoting general health and wellbeing both in humans and a range of animal production systems."