Yes, it has been almost a month since my last update. My mom might say that this post is long overdue. I’d like to think of it as “fashionably late”. Either way, it’s here. I recently “celebrated” the six-month mark of my Watson year. A friend asked me if it has felt like a full six months since I left the U.S. and all I could really say was, “sometimes?” There are days when I’m completely floored by how quickly the time has flown. I remember my first day in Bangkok too vividly for so much time to have already passed. Other days it feels as if I have been at this forever, barely remembering what life was like before I started the year. Six months also means that I’ve now spent more time traveling that time left in the year, which is strange to think about but doesn’t necessarily affect my day-to-day life (at least not yet…).
I recently finished working at the salmon farm. It has been the centerpiece of my time in New Zealand and one of the more special experiences I’ve had this year. My time on the farm was relaxed in a way that my interviews and site visits have felt more rushed. Rather than trying to glean everything I could from brief interactions, I had the chance to come back to the same place every day and slowly develop a perspective that afforded me more nuance and complexity. It didn’t hurt that I was doing so among the Southern Alps in ultra-blue glacial water.
Before I left the farm, I had a conversation with the operations manager to try and tie up my experiences on the farm. One of the most interesting things we talked about was that New Zealand’s salmon aquaculture is relatively small from a global perspective. Countries like Chile, Norway, and Scotland dominate the world-stage in terms of salmon production; he estimated that the entirety of Mt. Cook Alpine Salmon’s product could fit into a single sea-cage in Norway. But this salmon farm punches well above its weight class and continues to grow its operations for overseas export. This farm is small but competitive on the global scale for several reasons. First is species related. The highly industrial salmon farming countries all farm Atlantic salmon as opposed to Chinook/King salmon found in New Zealand. The main biological difference between the two species is that Chinook die soon after spawning while Atlantic salmon can spawn several times throughout their lives, while many foodies prefer the taste of pacific salmon. Because New Zealand is farming and selling a different salmon species, they are not quite “competing” with these other countries but rather occupy a niche of the aquaculture market that cannot be crowded out by large-scale, cheaper production methods for Atlantic salmon farming.
Within the farmed Pacific salmon market, Mt. Cook Salmon can make an even more specialized claim. It is one of a handful of operations in the world to raise Pacific salmon entirely in freshwater. Clear, fresh, constantly flowing glacial water to be precise. In marine environments, viruses, parasites, and bacteria represent significant challenges to sustainable salmon aquaculture growth. But in clean freshwater systems, biosecurity is a minor concern. Although I haven’t had the chance to personally confirm this, many of the farmers I worked with also talked about the difference in taste between freshwater and marine farmed salmon. Freshwater salmon supposedly also has a cleaner, crisper taste that makes them less “fishy” and more versatile for cooking. So, taste is tied up in local environmental conditions, species choice for farming is influenced by international markets. Aquaculture, at the intersection of local resources and global pressures, grows and develops in very different ways.
With less than a month left here I don’t have quite enough time to arrange more aquaculture work, but I do have enough time to visit other aquaculture sites. I have a good sense of how environmental context and species choice played a role in Mt. Cook Salmon aquaculture, and I’m interested to see how these same factors influence marine salmon farming and mussel farming in New Zealand. I’m also excited to see how these industries overlap in unexpected ways. I’ve been so focused on recognizing as much diversity in the world of aquaculture that I sometimes forget to recognize similarities as well. Broadening my understanding of various aquaculture industries in New Zealand will be a chance to do both.
Tomorrow I’ll be spending the day at a marine salmon farm on Steward Island (NZ’s southernmost and 3rd largest island) before I make my way back up towards the Marlborough Sounds. I’m hoping that with a more spaced out schedule, I’ll be able to share more frequent updates as I finish up my project in New Zealand. Wishing everyone well back home.