A fresh attempt is being made to convert a one-time freezing works in Bluff into a pāua farm.

If it succeeds it could provide a major boost for the region that will soon be hit hard by Rio Tinto's decision to close the Tiwai Point aluminium shelter.

A number of projects have been mooted from the region, from a Tesla gigafactory to a giant cloud computing server farm.

AUT marine biologist Professor Andrea Alfaro. Photo / Supplied
AUT marine biologist Professor Andrea Alfaro. Photo / Supplied

However, this effort is already up and under way, with financial backers including Aaron Bhatnagar - an early investor in Pushpay, the NZX tech darling that shot to a billion-dollar valuation, then doubled again within weeks with the onset of Covid.

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The owners of the former Ocean Beach freezing works, Bluff Ltd, have partnered with Auckland University of Technology (AUT) on a project to turn its Southland site into a centre of excellence for aquaculture.

The first major step has been to re-establish pāua (abalone) farming at Bluff with science advice, led by AUT marine biologist Professor Andrea Alfaro.

Alfaro is also a director of Bluff Ltd, working with the company's MD Blair Wolfgram (brother-in-law of the aforementioned Bhatnagar).

With more than 500,000 juvenile pāua now growing, the farm is on target to produce its first major harvest in 2023.

The New Zealand aquaculture industry currently generates $600 million in revenue (largely in exports) per annum, AUT says.

Pāua and the glory

The Government's Aquaculture Strategy released less than 12 months ago, sets an ambitious target of increasing this to $3 billion in revenue by 2035.

Juvenile pāua at the Bluff Ltd farm. Photo / Supplied
Juvenile pāua at the Bluff Ltd farm. Photo / Supplied

Bluff Ltd was founded with a dozen staff. But if the company meets its targets, it will create thousands of jobs.

Juvenile pāua at the Bluff Ltd farm. Photo / Supplied
Juvenile pāua at the Bluff Ltd farm. Photo / Supplied

That would be welcome as the smelter closure looms, but locals will also be aware that a similar effort to convert the 50 hectare site - a pāua farm operated by Southern Marine Farms paua farm - was shut down in 2009 as the Global Financial Crisis saw the price of the shellfish crash.

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Will to pāua

Wolfgram says lack of scale was another contributing factor to the 2009 failure. The new venture is aiming got up yo 200 tonnes of pāua for its first harvest in 2024, and to take a more high-tech approach with its AUT partnership.

Bhatnagar says other aquaculture projects are being planned for the site as well.

The five-year Ocean Beach-AUT collaboration MoU covers education, research projects, staff and student exchange programmes, internships, post-doctoral research fellowships, funding applications, and development of other species such as fin fish, oysters, seaweed and forms of macro and microalgae.

Wolfgram, says more than ever there's a need in New Zealand and Southland for industries such as aquaculture to sustainably grow export earnings and create high-skilled jobs and opportunities.

The Ocean Beach Freezing Works at Bluff in 1955. The nearly-100 year-old business was shuttered in 1996. Photo / National Library
The Ocean Beach Freezing Works at Bluff in 1955. The nearly-100 year-old business was shuttered in 1996. Photo / National Library

"One of the biggest obstacles is having enough trained and skilled people in the workforce. Because we are dealing with sensitive living organisms it's critical our team understand the full life cycle and welfare of the species they are responsible for. We can only authentically achieve this through high-quality, hands-on research and education," he says.

The site in 2019. Photo / Supplied
The site in 2019. Photo / Supplied

"In our opinion, AUT is one of the leading educators in this space, attracting the best in terms of lecturers, industry-partnerships and of course students. We have experienced this firsthand with Andrea being of the world experts in pāua and [AUT senior lecturer] Dr Ali Seyfoddin developing incredible feed delivery technology."

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Ocean Beach has also hired AUT biomedical science graduate, Mogana Mannivannan as a
marine scientist and feed technician.

(From left): Bluff Ltd MD Blair Wolfgram, AUT School of Science deputy head Ali Seyfoddin, AUT Aquaculture Professor Andrea Alfaro, and Bluff Ltd director Dianna Perron. Photo / Supplied
(From left): Bluff Ltd MD Blair Wolfgram, AUT School of Science deputy head Ali Seyfoddin, AUT Aquaculture Professor Andrea Alfaro, and Bluff Ltd director Dianna Perron. Photo / Supplied

Alfaro says virtually every wild fishery species is under pressure or undergoing significant change from acidification of the ocean through global warming. The research conducted at Ocean Beach will help breed resilient shellfish, fish, algae and seaweed and optimise their growth to help ensure a sustainable future.

As well as pāua research in laboratories at its Auckland campus, AUT does research of the wild fishery including most recently in the Chatham Islands (see video above). It has also worked with New Zealand's only other land-based pāua farm, Moana Blue in Northland's Ruakaka.