July | August 2012
Tough environment produces world’s best
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The International magazine for the aquaculture feed industry
produces world’s best Barramundi
by Robert Taylor, Marine Produce Australia, www.marineproduceaustralia.com.au
hen, in January this year, (population 2 million). The Kimberley as area ever to be considered for fish farming in
Western Australian the northern part of Western Australia the first place.
Environment Minister Bill is known, occupies some 421,000 square Broome, Derby, and the Buccaneer
Marmion signed off on an kilometres with a total population of just Archipelago have been the centre of the
application by Marine Produce Australia 25,000 people. Australian pearling industry for more than
(MPA) to harvest 2,000 tonnes of top quality 100 years. MPA’s lease over 700 hectares
barramundi at the Cone Bay operation in the Top-notch barra of Cone Bay was initially granted by the
state’s vast far north, he did more than just But this speck on the Australian coastline WA Fisheries Department as a pearl farm-
double the company’s existing production is rapidly making a name for itself among the ing licence to the Hutton family’s pearling
license. nation’s best chefs as the hot spot for farm company.
grown finfish. It’s all in the tides. “The original licence was to do some
After eight years and around AU$50 mil- As top Australian food critic Rob Broadfield research on the black lipped pearl, we
lion in research and development by MPA on wrote in The West Australian newspaper trialed and seeded that species of shell
one of the world’s most remote aquaculture recently, “Cone Bay Barra swim and swim but that fell by the wayside as the Tahitian
ventures, Marmion sent a signal to the world and swim against the massive tides from inside and Polynesian black-lipped production
that finally the waters off the Australia’s north- their sea pens. They are perhaps the fittest increased,” says John Hutton, a former AFL
west coast with their huge tides were open fish on earth which is why their fat – and fat footballer now heading the family’s aquacul-
for business. is what barramundi flavour is all about – is ture operations.
Cone Bay in the Buccaneer Archipelago spread evenly throughout the body (their The licence in Cone Bay was renewable
is 100km from the nearest town, Derby laid back estuarine cousins have potbellies in every 12 months and the pearling company
(population 3380), which in turn is 2400km comparison). continued to keep it going as staff tested
north of the West Australian capital Perth “Then there’s the clean, briny flavour and other species.
a clear opaque flesh: a Meanwhile, Mr Hutton and his fel-
consequence of a life lived low investors in MPA were looking for
in the warm waters of an alternative viable aquaculture species.
the Indian Ocean north of The Fisheries Department pointed the
Derby,” says Mr Broadfield. Huttons in the direction of the black
Cone Bay, with tides of tiger prawn and the company spent three
up to 11 metres twice a years experimenting with the species,
day, is fantastic for grow- re-booting a rundown prawn farm in the
ing fish but the Kimberley, Northern Territory.
with temperatures push- When a group of investors dropped into
ing above 50°c degrees in Cone Bay on the back of a trip to check out
the wet season, crocodile the prawn operations in Darwin, a light bulb
infested waters and huge went on.
distances between tiny “On that trip one investor wandered
settlements is tough on off, grabbed a small handful of feed and
humans. threw it into what effectively was a big
wine barrel containing barramundi finger-
A happy accident lings. They started attacking the top of the
It took something of an water where the feed was and the investor
historical accident for the
10 | InternAtIonAl AquAFeed | July-August 2012
declared that we must have barramundi in Fingerlings from the
MPA,” said Mr Hutton. Darwin Aquaculture hatch-
ery where flown in eskies
Biting the bullet to Broome, driven to Derby
In 2004, the company announced to the and then flown to Cone Bay
world it was entering into the fish farming by helicopter at a cost of
business and kicked off with two small sea AU$20,000 a trip.
cages of 40 metre circumference growing the But those tides which
local Lates calcarifer, or Barramundi, found meant no water pumping,
across the north of Australia. and the 30°c water which
A fact finding mission to Tassal’s salmon meant no artificial heating,
operation in Tasmania followed and the com- gave the company an insight
pany was soon confronted with a choice into the area’s potential for
between continuing with the black tiger prawns farming the local barramundi,
and ramping up the barramundi operation. a hardy, marketable fish that
The prawn market was competitive with had already proved its farm-
Chinese imports continually undercutting the ing durability in operations
local producers and consumers barely dis- on Australia’s east coast.
criminating on quality, but the barramundi The company bit the bul-
option was a leap into the unknown. let, sold the prawn business
“Cone Bay Barramundi was purely research and poured its resources
and development, no one had ever done into growing barramundi at
finfish farming in the Kimberley and we were Cone Bay.
making educated assumptions as we went
along. How to do sea cages, these big plastic Reaching
pipes sitting on the water,” says Mr Hutton. critical mass
“We knew our anchoring systems with In the eight years since the previously been subject to regular rounds of fund
regard to long lines from our pearling opera- Australian Stock Exchange listed vehicle Tiger raising as the capital intensive business
tions but we had to take that knowledge and International has morphed into the unlisted took two steps forward and one-step
adopt it to circular sea cages with ten metre entity Marine Produce Australia. back battling to overcome conditions
tides twice a day.” The company’s 800 investors have as diverse as sky-high wages caused by
July-August 2012 | InternAtIonAl AquAFeed | 11
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required to keep tonnages around the 350
mark. But in a way the disciplines imposed
during this time has been the making of the
“It was tough financially but we started
to see major results from our research and
development. Moving 40 metre cage sizes to
60 metre cage sizes – yes they work. Different
anchoring systems, tying off systems, feeding
systems, establishing markets, operation sys-
tems 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 com-
pany knuckled down and just eight months
after receiving its 1,000 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
WA’s mining boom, a confidence sapping “The EPA become involved when they half of 2012.
global financial crisis, and bureaucratic decided the tonnages are such that they will
red tape. start having in their view an impact on the Aquaculture zone
“To get to what we saw as being criti- environment,” said Mr Hutton. Meanwhile on December 16, 2011,
cal mass, the 2,000 tonne, has taken a very “We were always of the view that there WA Fisheries Minister Norman Moore
long time. Four to five years of lobbying and needn’t be a figure and that approvals should announced State Government funding to
answering questions and doing studies and be based on an output, performance-based establish two aquaculture zones for finfish
research into whether barramundi has the monitoring regime but the EPA has insisted 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 burden on the company.
MPA is convinced that the government
study will prove that Cone Bay, which is
21km long and 6.2 km 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 AU$20 million a year in
revenue. At 5000tps it will burst through
the AU$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
ability to be an aquaculture species that can on input restrictions and output restrictions and we are employing worldwide best
expand and gain approval from the WA and limited production to 1,000 tonnes.” practice”.
Government,” said Mr Hutton. That equated to stocking rate of just One way MPA has managed to de-risk
Initially the company sought and received 1.5 tonnes a hectare compared to stocking is by seeking out the best people in their
licenses from the Department of Fisheries rates in other jurisdictions, world heritage field like evolutionary geneticist Dr Desiree
for small production levels up to 150 tonnes Tasmania for instance, of 28 tonnes per Allen recently appointed as research and
per year. hectare in waters with little tidal movement. development manager and Daryn Payne
But before long the EPA, which had been Nevertheless, the EPA, with no formal WA who prior to joining MPA as farm opera-
carved out of the break-up of the Western guidelines to work from slapped the company tions manager was Tassel’s regional man-
Australian Department of Environment by with the state’s highest level of scrutiny – a full ager for five years.
the Carpenter Labor Government decided public environmental review. Mark Asman for five years the Chief
that MPA’s venture required more than an It took two financially tough years to com- Operating Officer for Tassal with a lifetime
aquaculture license. plete the PER during which the company was of experience has come on board as aqua-
12 | InternAtIonAl AquAFeed | July-August 2012
ferred to the
culture consultant through his company ference sea cages, delivers feed direct into
SmartAqua. Cone Bay and takes fish out at around the
“After viewing the MPA operation, I 3-4kg mark on a purpose-fitted harvest boat.
was thoroughly impressed with the quality The fish are stun-killed as they come
of the product, the vast and spectacular from the cages onto the boat and chilled in
farming area, and the potential for another 80kg bins on deck before being shipped to
successful aquaculture project in Australia,” Derby for transferral to refrigerated trucks
says Mr Asman. where they are dispatched to high-end
MPA has screwed down on costs restaurants and wholesalers around the
through more automated and targeted country without ever being frozen.
feeding regimes and slick transfer to market. With Government licenses in place
MPA’s next step is to re-list on the
The MPA process Australian Securities Exchange. “We’ve learnt lot. We now believe
Three years ago MPA struck a deal with And the WA Government has also final- we’ve got the right processes, the right
Fremantle based Challenger Institute of ly brought out a Fisheries Policy Statement, location and the right product, Cone
Technology’s Australian Centre of Applied which will be followed by legislation which Bay Ocean Barramundi, to make a major
Aquaculture Research (ACAAR) in Perth to will underpin the processes to secure long- impact on both the domestic and world
supply all required fingerlings to the Cone term sustainability in aquaculture. markets,” says John Hutton. ■
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July-August 2012 | InternAtIonAl AquAFeed | 13
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