New Zealand has an underwater forest of a nutritious and sustainable food crop in our oceans and we are starting to harness it, writes David Herkt.
Troy Bramley and Claire Edwards live in Tora, population near 30, on the rocky and dramatically wind-shaped southeast edge of the Wairarapa coast. It is a spectacular landscape but the strong off-shore currents have also created a unique fishing environment.
There is no landline service, service station or shops, but that is no bar to innovation. There is an internet link. Bramley and Edwards’ company, Tora Collective, is pioneering new ways of eating sustainably while providing the best seafood Aotearoa can offer.
“I have been in the fishing industry pretty much my whole life, and from what we saw going into the local markets, the produce was nowhere near as good as it could be. That was when we got on to the idea of bringing the fish direct from the ocean to the market,” Bramley says.
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“It is second-grade export stuff that the local market is getting,” emphasises Edwards. “It was about getting a really important part of what it means to be Kiwi back [on] our plates.”
It requires living and working with the cycle of the tides and weathers. Their 8-metre catamaran, Tākitimu, checks craypots over a 15km stretch of coastline around Tora, moving south towards Ngawi to dive for kina. The coastal seaweeds feed and breed their crayfish, pāua, and kina stock.
“Our customers are buying into the way we do business and life – the way we fish sustainably, the way we have so much dedication and take care in the resource and the product. When they open the box, it comes in a bed of seaweed with homemade ice packs, which are compostable,” she says.
“People have that connection with supporting something good and getting an epic product out of it as well.”
They sell live produce to online customers – crayfish, pāua, kina – while doing a little octopus and seaweed for high-end restaurants. Tora catches strictly to order, so there is no wastage. Their product is harvested one day and it is with the consumer the next through an efficient delivery system. They pride themselves on communication with their customers, who can go online to see where their meal was caught.
“Protecting the reproduction cycle is the most important thing,” Bramley says. “This year, we have made a decision about no crayfish females out of the Tora area because we see a lack of them. There are things like that. If you talk to people [at] the coalface, you can make decisions about the future of the fisheries.”
They are also among the real pioneers who are finding and supplying a product traditionally ignored by New Zealanders. While Bramley fishes, Edwards is frequently foraging for shore-thrown seaweed on the rocky coast. It is used for packaging – dried slightly to absorb water, or left moist for pāua.
Then, through Bramley’s mother, Lea, who is somewhat of a “seaweed guru” – with many years of experience, including trips to Ireland and the United States to further her knowledge – they also have a permit that allows them to gather limited amounts of bull kelp for quality restaurants that use it for cooking and steaming. They are also more than aware of the many other possibilities of seaweeds, and not only for food.
“I firmly believe we have to move into aquaculture for seaweeds,” Edwards says. “There is such an opportunity there – for ecological benefits, for regenerative benefits underwater, for climate-change by turning C02 back into oxygen, for cleaning. It is like a natural cleaner for the ocean. There is a huge potential.”
Seaweed is also part of the vision of Angela Clifford, the chief executive of non-profit Eat New Zealand.
“We are a South Pacific island nation. We are not a tiny little island nation. We are a huge continent, except most of our continent sits under the ocean,” she says.
“Somehow our culture-identity around our ocean has been missing, and instead it sits very much on our land – meat, dairy, and pasture, and kiwifruit and apples – but by missing the point we are missing our biggest opportunity.
“If you look at all the seaweed cultures of the world, places like Japan or Ireland, what they have in common is a reasonable amount of coastline. New Zealand is up there with the 9th longest coastline in the world, and we have some of the cleanest and coldest waters. Why don’t we have a seaweed culture? And why don’t we step into that space.”
For most people, their only encounter with seaweed comes through sushi or a wakame salad, but there are myriad other uses – and not only for food.
“Seaweed as a product is used for fertilisation on land. It is fed to animals. It is a nutraceutical. It is part of pharmaceutical preparations. It is a health supplement… It is the way people have fed themselves for eons. It is a super-product.
“My understanding is that it is the fastest-growing plant in the world. That it can capture carbon faster than anything else. I am amazed that we haven’t seen its potential before now.”
AgriSea, a family-owned company in Paeroa is nearly 25 years old. It is one of New Zealand’s most successful biostimulant companies, now branching out into other seaweed products. It has seen the potential.
“We are a values-led, Māori-owned, family-run company,” says Clare Bradley, Agrisea’s Head of Science, Research and Development. She and her husband, Tane Bradley, lead the business. “We are highly innovative, and seaweed is absolutely in everything we do.”
Clare Bradley was a biology student at Auckland University when she had the chance to spend five weeks in the Amazon, working as a volunteer with indigenous communities.
“I ended up being there for two years. I had no running water, no power, nothing, and I started to learn the importance of ecosystems – that nothing occurs in isolation in nature. I gained the vision of indigenous communities being able to create value – and by value, we are not necessarily talking money, but value for future generations while maintaining the integrity of their natural surroundings.”
“That is part of my history, and I was lucky to marry into AgriSea, into this whānau. We have an opportunity with seaweed to reimagine what an industry could look like based on indigenous values that has remote coastal communities thriving, and we are talking about a high-value industry.”
“I think the thing that surprises people is that seaweed use goes back thousands of years, and there are many established industries worldwide,” she says. “It is in things like your sushi and your seaweed salad, but it’s also a thickening agent so it might be in your toothpaste, your shampoo, lots of cosmetics, and food ingredients. People don’t realise how widely it is used.”
“Seaweed is so nutritious. In New Zealand, there are close to 1000 species. There is a huge potential there in terms of ones that are good for iodine consumption. You’ve got antibacterial agents. You’ve got antivirals. It can be used as a sunblock because some of them grow in the heat and the sun of the tidal area. It can be used for bio-packaging for natural packaging additives to reduce our plastic use. We have a seaweed gin we have made in collaboration with a distillery called Southward,” Clare Bradley says.
The AgriSea whānau were some of the founding members of the Seaweed Association.
“Seaweed has potential but it is absolutely the rainforest of the ocean,” Clare Bradley says. “Fifty per cent of the world’s oxygen comes from seaweed and algae. It is a nursery for baby fish. It is a food for so many other marine industries.
“For the Seaweed Association, it was around protecting that industry and making sure it didn’t go into the quota management system as it stood. We believe firmly that that is the wrong model for managing seaweeds. We can’t grow an impactful industry off our wild stock.”
It is a message endorsed by the Government.
“A number of seaweeds are in the quota management system,” says Mat Bartholomew, the director of aquaculture at Fisheries New Zealand, where he leads work to support the sustainable development of the aquaculture sector.
“The reason they are in there is to protect them from potential unconstrained harvest.”
“If someone was to stumble upon something that has an awesome potential for seaweed as a product, we want to make sure that the wild resource isn’t raided because of that value. Our view is that the future of seaweed definitely lies in farming.”
“Our place in [the] seafood sector is very much based upon what our niche is, our competitive advantage from the types of seaweed we have in New Zealand, and the values we associate with that,” Bartholomew says.
“We need to be really clear what that advantage really is, and it certainly won’t be mass-scale production for putting in miso soup.”
Dr Dave Taylor, technical director of Aquaculture New Zealand, is another scientist who knows that distance from global population centres means the nation has to focus on high-value rather than high volume.
“We need to make it worthwhile doing [it] here, otherwise we will just keep on buying bulk seaweed from Asia, and there is a lot of it.
“We are after a unique New Zealand story about seaweed, and we have a wonderful story with them here. We have our Māori cultural story, and our environmental story, and they will both add a special thing [to] the world market.”
It seems there is a blue water future and New Zealand has taken the first baby steps.