An open ocean mussel farm and processing first for Ōpōtiki.
An idea conceived of over 20 years ago has resulted in a ‘world first’ open ocean mussel farm and processing facility in the Eastern Bay of Plenty town of Ōpōtiki. It has taken a huge collaborative effort from the local community, Whakatōhea iwi, and the Crown.
Whakatōhea Mussels Ōpōtiki Limited has built the facility and business in a rural community that previously had no existing infrastructure for this type of activity. The outcome is a testament to all the individuals and organisations who contributed and is a potential blueprint for other regional developments.
The original vision held by Whakatōhea was to develop an open ocean Greenshell™ Mussel aquaculture farm off the coastline of Ōpōtiki. The required legislative change and resource consents, followed by research and feasibility trials took 15 years. The entire community contributed to the following phase of capital raising to enable commercialization – with over 159 shareholders from local businesses, families, and trusts, both Māori and Pakeha – all pitching in to make the aspiration a tangible operation.
Robert Edwards is chairman of the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board and has been lobbying for and working towards the revival of the local economy for many years. He sees the return of a pride and energy in Ōpōtiki since the opening of the processing facility and offshore farm and is hopeful for the opportunities that are being created now for the future of the community.
Te Whakatōhea Mussel Farm is situated about 8.5km offshore, covering about 3,800ha of open water. Mussels are harvested daily during the harvest season and delivered to the processing facility at Ōpōtiki where they are processed, packaged, frozen or iced, and freighted to customers around New Zealand and offshore. It is the culmination of Te Whakatōhea’s aim of “Ko te kai hoki I Waiaua” – “To be the food bowl that feeds the world”. The local catch is supplemented by supply from Nelson and the Coromandel.
Processing of mussels is undertaken in a purpose-built facility, resulting in a variety of products, such as live and frozen whole shell, frozen mussel meat and frozen half-shell. Two buildings connected by a drive-through canopy have areas for loading, storage, chilling, freezing, packing, shucking, tray-loading, and staff amenities.
Staff are at the heart of the operation, with a stated company aim being to create ‘meaningful jobs for local people to create a prosperous community’.
There are over 180 employees, all put through a training and development programme designed to give staff basic industry knowledge, with specialist skills in their work areas. There is also encouragement for those wishing to develop multi-skilled, cross-functional roles, and there are some apprenticeship programmes available. Health, safety, and well-being are also high priorities, and a nutritious meal every weekday is provided at the Facility.
Chief executive Peter Vitasovich says the efforts and outcomes of this extended mahi are set within a larger picture of creating a new industry and a thriving community in a rural area where no previous infrastructure existed. He acknowledges both the vision and mahi of Te Whakatōhea, significant government investment, and a supportive regional and local council together have enabled the progress to date - and have created a social licence to operate in the region. The company is still in the process of growing and training its workforce but for the first time in a very long time, there is a real option for creating jobs and long-term careers in Ōpōtiki.
Portia McKenzie is Kanoa Director of Regional Development. She explains that aquaculture has been identified as an area capable of delivering $3 billion in annual sales to the country by 2035. As such, the development arm of MBIE has been investing in aquaculture and infrastructure projects.
In Ōpōtiki, $198 million has been invested in 56 projects, of which Whakatōhea Mussels Ōpōtiki and the Harbour development project form a large part. She says aquaculture contributes significantly to regional development, generating over $600 million in revenue in 2018 and employed 3,000 people nationwide. “There is real potential to enrich our economy and our global reputation, when government, iwi and industry come together.”
By January 2023, the Ōpōtiki Harbour Development Project is close to completion. The project has involved closing the existing river mouth and relocating it, with the use of two big sea walls separated by a new access channel that will allow all-tide, all-weather access for the boats entering and leaving Ōpōtiki Harbour. In particular it is designed to service the barges and boats working at the offshore mussel farm, but it is anticipated that much of its use will come from other commercial and recreational fishers and boaties, and local tour operators.
Construction began in September 2020 but as John Galbraith (project director for the Ōpōtiki Harbour Development) explains, it has been a 25 year-long process involving the District Council and Whakatōhea kaumatua. John adds that the fishing is particularly good nearby the Mussel Farms, so will be a major attraction for many recreational boaties.
The recently elected Mayor of Ōpōtiki District, David Moore, confirms the win is for the wider community. He was on the Council when funding for the project was confirmed and says there is a strong feeling of ‘uplift’ as a result of the project - that would not have come about without the foresight and support of local people. And in addition to the economic benefits for the region, young people are being given opportunities to upskill, find meaningful careers in these and associated support businesses - and reasons to remain in and contribute to the district.