I’ve found myself, at last, in the small town of Twizel. I’ve just begun working/interning/participant-observing with the animal husbandry team at Mt. Cook Alpine Salmon, which farm raises King (aka Chinook) salmon in freshwater canals along Lake Pukaki, Tekapo, and Ohau. While my numerous bus rides through New Zealand have given me plenty of opportunities to admire the country’s landscape, Twizel is decidedly in a class of its own. Twizel is framed by New Zealand’s Southern Alps whose highest peak, Mt. Cook, sits at the northern end of Lake Pukaki. The lakes are vibrantly blue; the kind of blue that looks either photoshopped or chemically induced. Thankfully neither is the case. The lakes are fed by the Tasman and Hooker Glaciers which, through freeze-thaw cycles erode the rock underneath releasing fine, silty sediment known as “glacial flour” into the water. The result is a vibrant blue color when the glacial melt arrives in the lakes. Glaciers, blue lakes, alps…the scenery probably doesn’t get much better. I’ve only just started on the farm today, so it will be a while before I’ve actually gotten into the rhythm of things but it certainly doesn’t hurt that I’m working in such a beautiful setting.
The seemingly endless bus rides I’ve taken have also given me time to process some of my first impressions about the aquaculture industries in New Zealand. The clusters of key words and ideas that revolved around my time in Thailand and Indonesia are rapidly changing now that I’m in New Zealand. Themes related to food security, rural livelihood and prosperity, and economization of production in SE Asia have given way to ideas like “green and clean” and premium production in New Zealand. Of course, these differences can be contextualized within the general differences between the developed and developing world. But it’s also important to say that these differences carry much more texture and nuance than a simple binary of developed/developing countries allows. The themes I encountered in Thailand and Indonesia, while sharing a great deal of overlap, still had country specific character; it would be disingenuous to talk about aquaculture in SE Asia simply as “aquaculture in developing countries”. In the same manner, the themes I’m encountering in New Zealand arise out of country-specific contexts suggesting that a generalization of NZ aquaculture as “aquaculture in the developed world” also falls flat.
In the past two weeks, I’ve conducted 5 interviews, visited a mussel farm in the Marlborough Sounds, and attended a public hearing for a new marine farm in the same area. The phrase “clean and green” has popped up in every one of these experiences. It seems to apply to aquaculture practices in New Zealand, which are completely chemical free, as well as the image that New Zealand aquaculture presents to the rest of the world. For example, New Zealand Greenshell Mussels (endemic to the country) are largely exported to the United States where heavy emphasis is placed upon the mussels’ origins in the pristine, “untouched” waters of the Marlborough Sounds. Similarly, the salmon farm where I’ve just started exports a great deal of fish to Whole Foods. The whole salmon arrives with a small tag with a serial number that can be traced back to the place and date when the salmon was harvested. Someone has already told me that a full salmon from Mt. Cook can retail at Whole Foods for over 100 USD. It seems that things like traceability and origin stories play a very large role in helping New Zealand carve out it’s specific niche in the global aquaculture market. If the lush aquaculture industries of Thailand and Indonesia are understood to provide massive amounts of seafood for day-to-day consumption (e.g. buying a bag of peeled shrimp from Wal-Mart or Costco), the aquaculture industries of New Zealand appear to cater to decidedly more “boutique” occasions (e.g. perhaps a summer barbecue at your summer estate with the healthy, low-fat salmon option?). Quality, rather than quantity, seems to be the hook for marketing and consumption of New Zealand aquaculture products abroad.
It also seems that there is tremendous potential for New Zealand to capitalize on its “clean and green” narrative through further expansion of its aquaculture industries. The main three species cultivated in New Zealand: greenshell mussels, pacific oysters, and king salmon, all have potential to be grown on even larger scales as advances in aquaculture research and technology continue to diversify the types of and places where aquaculture can be practiced. The biggest bottleneck for this growth seems to be legislative. After a moratorium on all new marine farms in 2004, the aquaculture industries came to a virtual standstill with production maxing out on existing farms. In 2011 this moratorium was slowly lifted, with applications for new marine farms being evaluated by the country’s regional councils rather than the central government. The localized approach to developing new marine farms has given rise to a diversity of site-specific considerations, approaches, and perspectives, resulting in a surprisingly complex and diverse landscape for the growth and success of New Zealand’s aquaculture industries. For example, the Waikato Regional Council on the North Island and the Marlborough District Council on the South Island have different legislature regarding how marine farms must be built that are (in theory) tailored to those specific environments. An approved marine farm in the Waikato region may not have been approved in Marlborough and vice versa. During the public hearing I attended in the Marlborough District, there was a full day’s worth of testimony from researchers on behalf of both the applicants and submitters (people raising concerns). Much of this testimony focused quite specifically on the scientific understanding of the environment where the proposed marine farm was to be built. Questions and concerns about mussel farming effects on endemic seabird populations, the visual landscape, and the local seafloor, reinforced the idea that aquaculture is inextricably connected to the people and environment around it. Ironically, some of the greatest concern for continued growth of New Zealand aquaculture comes from the unknown environmental risks that greater seafood production entails. The “clean and green” narrative both locally and abroad is central to how the industries may or may not grow.
4.5 months ago, when I so self-indulgently gave my blog the name “aquacultureshock”, I was unprepared for exactly how…well…shocking it would be to encounter such diverse aquaculture industries. Being in New Zealand has made for an especially powerful “aquacultureshock” as I try to contextualize what I’m now learning with the things I learned in Thailand and Indonesia. This year has been, and continues to be, a humbling exercise in making as few assumptions as possible before I’ve actually made any observations. In the past two weeks alone I’ve encountered a variety of perspectives and experiences that seem to bifurcate at surprising junctions and meet up again in even more unexpected places. Over the next 1.5 months, I’m really excited to sink into the local rhythms of salmon farming in Lake Tekapo; to dig a bit past the surface and try to find the nuanced diversity of aquaculture that can exist even within a single farming site. Be on the lookout for more posts and, more importantly, photos (sorry there aren’t any of the salmon farm just yet) as I continue to learn!