Aquaculture has grown from next to nothing to an industry worth hundreds of millions in the Bay of Plenty.
Experts say the eastern Bay could become "a powerhouse" for New Zealand aquaculture as it continues to grow and diversify.
One iwi collective is working on a $200 million large-scale aquaculture plan to build a "world-class" industry in the region and create about 1000 new jobs.
Aquaculture is the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs, algae and other organisms like aquatic plants.
Professor Chris Battershill, director of the University of Waikato coastal marine field centre in Tauranga, said 10 to 15 years ago aquaculture was "negligible" in the Bay of Plenty.
Now, Battershill said with offshore mussel farms in the eastern Bay looking at covering up to 10,000ha the industry would be worth about $300m-plus.
That was arguably equal to or more than the current mussel farming venture in the Marlborough Sounds, he said.
There has been more than $100m in investment in Ōpōtiki as a consequence, he said.
"So the socio-economic growth/value has already been substantial."
Battershill, who was also the Bay of Plenty Regional Council coastal science chairperson, said the value of New Zealand aquaculture from 1989 to 2011 grew from $50m to $298m.
In 2018, the value was estimated to be $600m and the Government's target is $3 billion by 2035, he said.
"This is based on just three species (salmon, mussels and oysters), so there is huge potential for growth as we diversify, and this is something the University of Waikato is excelling at."
The university was working on a macroalgae project focusing on freshwater and marine algae that removed nutrients from water.
"The work is designed to create new bio industries for both food products from seaweeds, but also algal extracts that have a range of uses from reducing emission of methane from cattle when fed algae, to agrichemicals that have activities for industries such as kiwifruit."
Battershill said there was also the potential for seaweed aquaculture to be carried out in combination with other aquaculture ventures.
"There is a large, high-value global market (worth US$55b in 2018) that we could be tapping into as a primary producer/supplier of seaweeds."
University of Waikato Tauranga marine science and aquaculture senior lecturer, Dr Simon Muncaster, said the industry had evolved greatly in the last five decades and he believed the Bay was at the beginning of an exciting new phase of growth.
He said the region had a small industry compared with Marlborough, which produced about 60 per cent of the salmon and greenshell mussels.
However, commercial farming of quality oysters had been established in the Ōhiwa Harbour for a long time and a mussel farm near Ōpōtiki had consent to be developed into the largest marine farm in the country.
"This region is likely to become a powerhouse for New Zealand aquaculture as the local industry grows in size and diversifies.
"There will likely be many spinoff industries that become established around the growth of this industry providing further startup opportunities and regional benefit."
Muncaster said there was potential for "massive growth" in the industry to meet the protein demand of a rapidly growing global population.
"There is also a rapid expansion of an emerging wealthy middle class in highly populated parts of the world.
"Many of these people want to consume higher value, luxury seafoods."
The Bay also had extensive contaminant-free coastal resources compared to more populated regions in the world, he said.
"To achieve this we are likely to see huge growth in local aquaculture technology. This will allow farms to move further offshore and others on to land to ensure the highest environmental performance."
Muncaster said research will also develop biotechnology of local species to improve production efficiency and sustainability and investment with support diversification of aquaculture species.
That included algae that can improve the quality of the region's waterways and offset carbon emissions, he said.
"Aquaculture will also support the development of high-value products such as nutraceuticals, bioplastics and new pharmaceuticals."
The university was working on a National Science Challenge-funded project with iwi research partners to develop community aquaculture of pātiki/flounder.
However, Muncaster said challenges included securing a guaranteed supply of seedstock, providing products tailored to the species biology and developing technology to suit NZ conditions.
"We also know that developing tools that can monitor how farmed organisms respond to changing environments are becoming increasingly important."
Muncaster said answers to these challenges were coming through local ingenuity and research.
"However, as the industry grows we will need to keep innovating to ensure competitiveness, efficiency, and sustainability."
That was the basis for developing the BSc Aquaculture major at the university's Tauranga campus, he said.
"We want to produce career-ready graduates, who can continue to drive the industry forward and grow a sustainable blue economy in the global markets.
"If we are clever with our approach then we can achieve this and help provide solutions to global challenges at the same time."
University of Waikato Tauranga marine science and aquaculture senior lecturer, Dr Steve Bird, said there was a wide range of skilled people with global experience ready to help grow the region's aquaculture industry.
"We have worked together to develop a three-year aquaculture major programme, which is the only one in the country, that has been designed to specifically train people for the aquaculture industry."
Global resources were under pressure, land-based farming had reached its limit and aquaculture had become the fastest-growing primary industry in the world, he said.
"However, there is so much we can do to make the industry more sustainable and we are really only just beginning to learn about the organisms we farm...
"Aquaculture will likely play a role in producing these and in many cases will lead to the creation of high-value products, in addition to the food we create."
University of Waikato marine science and aquaculture senior researcher Marie Magnussen led a research programme on algal aquaculture at the Tauranga campus.
Magnussen said there were six PhD students and two MSc students working on all aspects of macroalgal biotechnology from closing of life cycles for aquaculture, population genetics, high-throughput chemical analysis methods, and product development.
Te Arawa Fisheries is working on a $200 million large-scale aquaculture plan with Bay iwi to grow a "world-class" industry in the region and create about 1000 new jobs.
The Waiariki iwi collective had spent the past year researching aquaculture that would suit Bay conditions and had shortlisted five species.
It was now developing the final investment-ready business cases, which already have investment backing.
Te Arawa Fisheries chief executive Chris Karamea Insley said the development reached a milestone in July with the virtual signing of a $20m multi-year funding agreement with the government.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was entered into by Ngā Iwi i Te Rohe o Te Waiariki, Plant & Food Research, Cawthron Institute, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and the universities of Otago and Waikato.
The purpose of the MOU was to enable better collaboration, data sharing and funding to explore potential marine, science and technology business opportunities.
Insley, who is also the Bay of Plenty Iwi Aquaculture project leader, said it was working with between 3000 and 5000 scientists who were all experts in their fields.
"When we get this up and running over the next one to five years we are predicting that will equate to around 1000 new jobs for our people.
"This is not just happening by accident. It's very deliberate step by step to grow wealth, to grow people... and our identity and culture in the Bay of Plenty.
"We are not just chasing economic returns, whatever we do it will be environmentally sustainable, it will have an impact in growing our people and our communities and grow and promote our identity, culture and tikanga."
Insley said it will have the final of five business cases for green-lipped mussels, kingfish, seaweed, hāpuku and scallops in the next two months, which had already attracted investor interest.
"We know we're probably going to need somewhere in the vicinity of $200m to make this really fly.
"That is the entire capital investment for each of the five business cases to bring them to life."
The work on the Bay of Plenty was already being seen as a priority for the Government in terms of its national aquaculture strategy, he said.
"We've already done a lot of the homework... it is what we consider to be best practice and world-class."