Robert Taylor of MPA explains how the tough conditions at Cone Bay, Australia produce top class barramundi.
Tough environment produces world’s best
When, in January this year, Western Australian Environment Minister Bill Marmion signed off on an application by Marine Produce Australia (MPA) to harvest 2000 tonnes of top quality barramundi at the Cone Bay operation in the State’s vast far north, he did more than just double the company’s existing production license.
After eight years and around $50 million in research and development by MPA on one of the world’s most remote aquaculture ventures, Marmion sent a signal to the world that finally the waters off the Australia’s north-west coast with their huge tides were open for business.
Cone Bay in the Buccaneer Archipelago is 100km from the nearest town, Derby (pop.3380), which in turn is 2400km north of the West Australian capital Perth (pop 2million). The Kimberley as the northern part of Western Australia is known, occupies some 421,000 square kilometres with a total population of just 25,000 people.
But this speck on the Australian coastline is rapidly making a name for itself among the nation’s best chefs as the hot spot for farm grown fin fish. It’s all in the tides.
As top Australian food critic Rob Broadfield wrote in The West Australian newspaper recently, “Cone Bay Barra swim and swim and swim against the massive tides from inside their sea pens. They are perhaps the fittest fish on earth which is why their fat – and fat is what barramundi flavour is all about – is spread evenly throughout the body (their laidback estuarine cousins have potbellies in comparison).
“Then there’s the clean, briny flavour and a clear opaque flesh: a consequence of a life lived in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean north of Derby,” says Mr Broadfield.
Cone Bay, with tides of up to 11 metres twice a day, is fantastic for growing fish but the Kimberley, with temperatures pushing above 50c degrees in the wet season, crocodile infested waters and huge distances between tiny settlements is tough on humans.
It took something of an historical accident for the area ever to be considered for fish farming in the first place.
Broome, Derby, and the Buccaneer Archipelago have been the centre of the Australian pearling industry for more than 100 years. MPA’s lease over 700 hectares of Cone Bay was initially granted by the WA Fisheries Department as a pearl farming licence to the Hutton family’s pearling company.
“The original licence was to do some research on the black lipped pearl , we trialled and seeded that species of shell but that fell by the wayside as the Tahitian and Polynesian black-lipped production increased,” says John Hutton, a former AFL footballer now heading the family’s aquaculture operations.
The licence in Cone Bay was renewable every 12 months and the pearling company continued to keep it going as staff tested other species.
Meanwhile, Mr Hutton and his fellow investors in MPA were looking for an alternative viable aquaculture species. The Fisheries Department pointed the Huttons in the direction of the black tiger prawn and the company spent three years experimenting with the species, re-booting a rundown prawn farm in the Northern Territory.
When a group of investors dropped into Cone Bay on the back of a trip to check out the prawn operations in Darwin, a light bulb went on.
“On that trip one investor wandered off, grabbed a small handful of feed and threw it into what effectively was a big wine barrel containing barramundi fingerlings. They started attacking the top of the water where the feed was and the investor declared that we must have barramundi in MPA,” said Mr Hutton.
In 2004, the company announced to the world it was entering into the fish farming business and kicked off with two small sea cages of 40 metre circumference growing the local Lates calcarifer, or Barramundi, found across the north of Australia.
A fact finding mission to Tassal’s salmon operation in Tasmania followed and the company was soon confronted with a choice between continuing with the black tiger prawns and ramping up the barramundi operation.
The prawn market was competitive with Chinese imports continually undercutting the local producers and consumers barely discriminating on quality, but the barramundi option was a leap into the unknown.
“Cone Bay Barramundi was purely R and D, no one had ever done finfish farming in the Kimberley and we were making educated assumptions as we went along. How to do sea cages, these big plastic pipes sitting on the water,” says Mr Hutton.
“We knew our anchoring systems with regard to long lines from our pearling operations but we had to take that knowledge and adopt it to circular sea cages with ten metre tides twice a day.”
Fingerlings from the Darwin Aquaculture hatchery where flown in eskies to Broome, driven to Derby and then flown to Cone Bay by helicopter at a cost of $20,000 a trip.
But those tides which meant no water pumping, and the 30c water which meant no artificial heating, gave the company an insight into the area’s potential for farming the local barramundi, a hardy, marketable fish that had already proved its farming durability in operations on Australia’s east coast.
The company bit the bullet, sold the prawn business and poured its resources into growing barramundi at Cone Bay.
In the eight years since the previously Australian Stock Exchange listed vehicle Tiger International has morphed into the unlisted entity Marine Produce Australia.
The company’s 800 investors have been subject to regular rounds of fund raising as the capital intensive business took two steps forward and one-step back battling to overcome conditions as diverse as sky-high wages caused by WA’s mining boom, a confidence sapping global financial crisis, and bureaucratic red tape.
“To get to what we saw as being critical mass, the 2000 tonne, has taken a very long time. Four to five years of lobbying and answering questions and doing studies and research into whether barramundi has the ability to be an aquaculture species that can expand and gain approval from the WA Govt,” said Mr Hutton.
Initially the company sought and received licenses from the Department of Fisheries for small production levels up to 150 tonnes per year.
But before long the EPA, which had been carved out of the break-up of the Western Australian Department of Environment by the Carpenter Labor Government decided that MPA’s venture required more than an aquaculture license.
“The EPA become involved when they decided the tonnages are such that they will start having in their view an impact on the environment,” said Mr Hutton.
“We were always of the view that there needn’t be a figure and that approvals should be based on an output, performance-based monitoring regime but the EPA has insisted on input restrictions and output restrictions and limited production to 1000 tonnes.”
That equated to stocking rate of just 1.5 tonne a hectare compared to stocking rates in other jurisdictions, world heritage Tasmania for instance, of 28 tonnes per hectare in waters with little tidal movement. Nevertheless, the EPA, with no formal WA guidelines to work from slapped the company with the State’s highest level of scrutiny – a full public environmental review.
It took two financially tough years to complete the PER during which the company was required to keep tonnages around the 350 mark. But in a way the disciplines imposed during this time has been the making of the company.
“It was tough financially but we started to see major results from our R and D. Moving 40 metre cage sizes to 60 metre cage sizes – yes they work. Different anchoring systems, tying off systems, feeding systems, establishing markets, operation systems and capabilities,” said Mr Hutton.
Backed up by the very favourable results of the company’s environmental monitoring and with the help of outside consultants the company knuckled down and just eight months after receiving its 1000 tonne approval in May 2011, was granted the 2000tpa license by Minister Marmion as an interim step towards the ultimate goal of 5000tpa which the company expects to receive in the second half of 2012.
Meanwhile on December 16, 2011 WA Fisheries Minister Norman Moore announced State Government funding to establish two aquaculture zones for fin fish farming on the WA coastline, the first being Cone Bay in the Buccaneer Archipelago.
The government is currently doing detailed environmental studies to create the aquaculture zone thus streamlining MPA’s application for approval for 5,000 tpa and easing the burdon on the company.
MPA is convinced that the Government study will prove that Cone Bay which is 21kms long and 6.2 kms wide at its western opening has a carrying capacity far in excess of the 5,000 tonnes and as the sole operator in the remote location and with a massive head start over prospective competitors Cone Bay Barramundi will be in the box seat to capitalise.
Presently harvesting over 1,100 tonnes per annum, at 2000tpa the company will turn over around $20 million a year in revenue. At 5000tps it will burst through the $50million level with seriously decreased cost through upscaling.
“We are identifying and managing our risk to a much greater degree. The risks are similar in fish farming around the world and we are employing worldwide best practice”.
One way MPA has managed to de-risk is by seeking out the best people in their field like evolutionary geneticist Dr Desiree Allen recently appointed as research and development manager and Daryn Payne who prior to joining MPA as farm operations manager was Tassel’s regional manager for five years.
Mark Asman for five years the Chief Operating Officer for Tassal with a lifetime of experience has come on board as aquaculture consultant through is company SmartAqua.
“After viewing the MPA operation, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the product, the vast and spectacular farming area, and the potential for another successful aquaculture project in Australia,” says Mr Asman.
MPA has screwed down on costs through more automated and targeted feeding regimes and slick transfer to market.
Three years ago MPA struck a deal with Fremantle based Challenger Institute of Technology’s Australian Centre of Applied Aquaculture Research (ACAAR) in Perth to supply all required fingerlings to the Cone Bay farm, an arrangement that sees 250,000 healthy fingerlings periodically transferred to the farm without loss.
MPA now operates 80 metre-circumference sea cages, delivers feed direct into Cone Bay and takes fish out at around the 3-4kg mark on a purpose-fitted harvest boat.
The fish are stun-killed as they come from the cages onto the boat and chilled in 80kg bins on deck before being shipped to Derby for transferral to refrigerated trucks where they are dispatched to high end restaurants and wholesalers around the country without ever being frozen.
With Government licenses in place MPA’s next step is to re-list on the Australian Securities Exchange.
And the WA Government has also finally brought out a Fisheries Policy Statement which will be followed by legislation which will underpin the processes to secure long-term sustainability in aquaculture.
“We’ve learnt lot. We now believe we’ve got the right processes, the right location and the right product, Cone Bay Ocean Barramundi, to make a major impact on both the domestic and world markets,” says John Hutton.