Clearwater Mussels

April 2016

Producing, processing and marketing Greenshell mussels in the Marlborough Sounds

Marlborough Sounds aquaculture business, Clearwater Mussels was the 2015 Lincoln University Foundation South Island Farming award co-winner and claimed the Farmlands Best Resource Management award. Managing director and 50% shareholders, John Young and Lyn Godsiff, entered to showcase the mussel industry and the opportunities it creates in Marlborough.

Judges praised the company for “leadership in innovation, technology, human resource management, marketing, entrepreneurship and, crucially, very strong relationships with their customers”.

Green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus, marketed as New Zealand Greenshell) have been farmed in the Marlborough Sounds for less than 50 years. The industry has grown to earn $300 billion per year and directly employs 3000 New Zealanders plus others in support industries. The government’s Aquaculture Strategy is to support the industry towards achieving its goal of growing annual sales to NZ$1 billion by 2025.

Clearwater Mussels manages 90 greenshell mussel farms spanning 470ha in the top of the South Island. Ranging from 2.5-80 hectares, its farms in the Marlborough Sounds, Golden Bay and Tasman Bay grow one seventh of New Zealand’s mussel production. One hundred and fifteen tonnes a day are processed at Talley’s Group’s Havelock factory, sold for food and as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

The company employs 25 staff and owns five boats used to seed farms, maintain farms and harvest mussels. Mussel floats are manufactured, seeding cotton knitted and rope reconditioned at its Havelock base.

Clearwater Mussels’ sustainability is certified under an A+ standards programme, launched at the Aquaculture New Zealand Conference in September 2015.

Old mussel floats are melted down at the site and processed into new.

John Young and partner Lyn Godsiff own the company in a 50% partnership with Talley’s.

John has been involved in mussel farming since its early days, when as a university student in 1969, he worked for industry pioneer Charlie Guard harvesting mussels off a raft in Pelorus Sound using breathing apparatus made from a lawnmower engine and compressor attached to a length of garden hose and 4×2 plank.

After completing a BSc at Canterbury University, John worked for ten years with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries including running its mussel spat programme. He and fellow mussel farmer Jim Jenkins later revolutionised the industry, replacing expensive and ugly rafts with a longline system of floating buoys. These support long ropes to which tiny juvenile mussels (spat) are attached in degradable netting socks, each line growing out to 1000 tonnes of adult mussels.

John and Lyn’s first mussel farm was established alongside their sheep and cattle farm at Goulter Bay in Kenepuru Sound, at a time when farming in this remote environment was becoming uneconomic.  Over time, management but not ownership of these farms passed to aquaculture companies as the industry became more sophisticated and capital-intensive.

Talley’s Group offered the capital and knowledge to take the couple’s mussel farming business to the next stage of processing, marketing and adding value to their crop.

Today Clearwater manages farms through a mixture of ownership, share farming, iwi relationships and leases.

“We produce seafood but like all livestock farmers, depend on sunlight, water and grass, or in our case, algae,” says John.

The farming cycle starts with tiny spat being collected and seeded out, first on nursery lines then shifted to farms where they take 15-18 months to reach a harvestable size of 90-100mm.

John describes the Marlborough Sounds as ideal for mussel farming, being fed by the major Rai and Pelorus river systems and seasonal upwelling of the sub-Antarctic current which carries phytoplankton and other nutrients in from Cook Strait.

Seventy five per cent of Clearwater’s sales are of mussels in the half shell and about 25% marinated. A small volume is sold as nutraceutical ingredients in what John describes as the cusp of a boom which will push prices upwards.

Maclab in Nelson extracts lyprinol from Clearwater mussels, processed into powder then distributed to customers for manufacture into products to relieve arthritis and pain.

In what he calls marketing “heft”, John likes to take potential customers out in a boat to see king shags, seals, dolphins and other wildlife. They then collect mussels and seaweed and take them back to the family home to be cooked. On a recent trip, Lyn fried seaweed in sesame oil, topped with half-shell mussels and served with a glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc wine. Afterwards, the couple received 50 thank you cards and orders for 40 containers of mussels.

On another occasion John captured representatives of a Chinese pizza chain at Talley’s Havelock factory, who are now ordering several containers of mussels for toppings per month. “No one can tell the story of how green and sustainable mussels are better than a diver,” he says. “I let my passion spill over.”

But what gives John the most satisfaction is the untrained workers Clearwater employs, who grasp opportunities to train and build skills. “I’m all for giving kids an opportunity,” he says.

John predicts green-lipped mussels will be a major contributor to achieving the New Zealand aquaculture industry’s target of $1 billion earnings by 2025. Mussel farms are efficient producers of protein he says, growing 64,000 kg/ha compared with 2000kg/ha from dairy farming. This industry pioneer is convinced that future growth will come from increased prices with spin-off for tourism, rather than expansion.

Asked about challenges, John said that ongoing difficulty obtaining spat is his biggest worry. Traditional supplies from Golden Bay in Nelson and 90 Mile Beach in Northland are no longer reliable.

Over-settlement of unwanted blue mussels at Wainui Inlet in Golden Bay has prompted Clearwater to consider reconfiguring a harvesting vessel to select desirable green-lipped spat on size. At 90 Mile Beach, spat is no longer washing ashore but staying out in the surf on kelp, making collection inefficient and expensive.

John’s role in the company is mostly administration but he likes to spend a day a week on the water, keeping an especially close eye on spat.  He also spends more days than he’d like in hearings, to extend farms and to renew coastal permits. Clearwater’s application to the Marlborough District Council for one small extension resulted in a one week hearing by a Commissioner, costing $77,000. The council was saying that scientific reports showed a decline in sheltered Sounds ecosystems and objectors were arguing that mussel numbers had reached a tipping point where competition was inhibiting growth.

Clearwater has appealed decisions to turn down some extensions in the Environment Court.

“We haven’t had any renewals turned down but there’s talk of further exclusion zones,” says John.

The Marlborough District Council is to release an updated Resource Management Plan in 2016. With many Clearwater permits coming up for renewal in 2024, John fears that farms his company has run for 30 years could be in an exclusion zone where permits might not be renewed or new conditions applied.  At risk is the $100,000/ha value of mussel farms’ right to trade plus investment in equipment, says John. The Marlborough Marine Farming Association is claiming the plan will put environmental protection above economic growth.

As a qualified and experienced biologist, John is convinced “a myriad of factors affect mussel growth and productivity with cycles between La Nina and El Nino weather conditions the most significant.”  Too rapid a changeover, and volumes of algae which mussels feed on falls, slowing growth to marketable sizes.

The 2015-16 harvest is producing some of the best yields in many years, reversing a trend which saw a processing factory closed and jobs lost. Spat yields in Golden Bay have also improved.