By SIMON LOUISSON

Government approval for the sale of half the fishing company Sealord was given two years ago on the promise it would produce 700 jobs over five years.

To date the company, now joint owned by giant Japanese seafood company Nippon Suisan Kaisha (Nissui) and the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, is just over 20 per cent down the track with 150 jobs created.

Sealord largely blames the surprise Government moratorium on aquaculture developments, imposed in November 2001 and now partially reversed, for being behind on its target.

Brierley Investments, now Singapore-based and renamed BIL International, controversially sold half the country's biggest fishing company and largest fish quota holder for $208 million.

The commission already owned the other half.

The Government had earlier barred overseas bidders from buying all BIL's share because of concerns about fishing quota going offshore.

The deal overcame those concerns by transferring Sealord's quota - 23 per cent of the total quota available in New Zealand - to the commission and by promising new investment and jobs.

Sealord leases the quota and the commission and Nissui have 50-50 ownership of Sealord's restructured operating company.

The increase in jobs over the past two years has largely been driven by value-added processing and aquaculture, with staff mainly based in Nelson.

New Sealord boss Doug McKay, a former chief operating officer of giant Australasian food company Goodman Fielder, would not agree to an interview, although the company did provide answers to written questions.

"We have achieved a lot to date - job growth, new ventures which will produce further job growth and investment in research and people development," the company said.

The lag on the job growth target was largely due to the "unexpected" two-year moratorium on new aquaculture proposals that delayed some of Sealord's ventures, "and there may be further delays if local authorities take more than two years to create aquaculture zones".

"This is not a criticism of Government policy," Sealord said, "merely a factor that could not be anticipated, and which may extend the timetable on some projects designed to create new jobs."

In November 2001, the Government sprang the two-year moratorium on the marine farming industry - which includes mussels, kingfish and snapper - with all applications not at an advanced stage by November 2000 caught up in the ban.

But last March it did a u-turn and agreed to a primary production select committee's recommendation to allow about 140 more marine farming consent applications to be processed.

Sealord said it was on track to provide more jobs in the aquaculture area.

It is involved in joint venture aquaculture developments with Maori which it said would create additional jobs in coastal and rural communities and provide training development and jobs for Maori in depressed areas.

Its "conservative estimate" was that 200 to 300 additional jobs could be created in areas such as Hauraki and Napier/Bay of Plenty.

"Hundreds more jobs could be created if all Sealord's joint applications are successful."

As promised, Sealord and Nissui set up a project taskforce to investigate and oversee new value-added and aquaculture projects.

It cites its achievements to date:

* New imported Machinery for value-added processing.

* $1.3 million invested in aquaculture research and development (Sealord's R&D budget on greenshell mussels has increased $1 million since 2000).

* Other R&D development projects "in the pipeline".

* The commission and Nissui setting up scholarships for two Maori each year to spend 12 months based at Nippon Suisan Kaisha offices in Tokyo and then returning to work in the industry.

Commission chairman Shane Jones said the deal "was, and still is, an excellent deal for Maori, for Sealord and for the New Zealand seafood industry".

He said Nissui paid "top dollar" for its share of Sealord, "but importantly, that valuable quota remains in New Zealand hands".

The partnership was helping grow Maori capacity, technology and regional employment, he said.

The commission anticipates another 200 to 300 new jobs to be created in rural areas in the next five years.

- NZPA