Mt Cook Alpine Salmon

April 2021

Farming King Salmon in the upper Waitaki.

Mt Cook Alpine Salmon farms located in the Mackenzie Basin use existing hydro-electric infrastructure, geology, climate and kiwi ingenuity to farm high quality freshwater King Salmon for domestic and international consumption. The farms are located within a network of continuously flowing waterways in the upper Waitaki system, connecting three alpine lakes that support New Zealand’s largest renewable hydro power scheme. 


Swimming against fast flowing, highly oxygenated water currents in glacier-fed canals keeps salmon healthy and fit with minimal solid stored fats as most of their energy source is stored in readily accessible intramuscular oil. This attribute is expressed in the fine marbling and silky texture of their flesh.


The company has farms in the canals and a land-based hatchery in the Mackenzie Basin area. Currently under construction is the last and largest of the farms in the Ohau C canal, which discharges into Lake Benmore. They have a processing factory in Timaru and a hatchery and smokehouse in Christchurch (where Aoraki Smoked Salmon is produced).


Nearly 30 years ago a group of industry pioneers, including founders Richard Logan and Woody Horsefield, considered farming freshwater salmon in the glacier-fed canals near the base of Mt Cook in the South Island. The canals were constructed from 1968 to 1984 as part of a network of waterways, lakes and dams supporting New Zealand’s hydro power supply. 


Environmental Manager Rick Ramsay has been involved with the company from the beginning and says the cooperative relationship between the power company and the salmon farmers is crucial to their business. “We do have hydraulic impact on the ways the canals operate because in effect we’re a very small dam, but we can move our rafts to reduce the impact as required and that’s the sort of relationship we have. The key thing is we can’t impact on their operations and that’s what we intend not to do”, says Rick. 


Rick says at the beginning (in 1992) there was no manual for building a salmon farm in a hydro canal and the challenges they overcame included designing rafts to contain the fish and adjust to hydro canal flows. Initially they tried to slow or divert the amount of water running through the rafts but soon realized they had to rethink their approach to let as much water flow as they could. Currently their self-designed and constructed rafts, feeding and breeding infrastructure supports a multimillion-dollar domestic and export operation, producing around 1,000 tonnes of salmon each year from the Tekapo farms. The company employs 189 people across its operations and is the largest employer in Twizel.


The pioneering salmon farmers understood very quickly they had the potential to farm a King Salmon unique to the market. Fish grown under these conditions are described as having a well-balanced fat content, a delicate texture and a clean subtle taste.  Rick says the high quality of taste and texture create their point of difference. It may also be why it can be deep frozen then thawed without loss of structure or flavour. Rick says this has important implications for export options (being able to be shipped by sea as opposed to air freight).


Environmental technician Mikayla Wells runs compliance and monitoring protocols and is undertaking a sediment research programme to ensure there are reliable data being gathered to measure the impact of the company’s activities. Lake levels, weather events and levels of sediment and nitrogen entering and leaving the farms are monitored. Mikayla says it is all part of an environmental management plan covering consents, best aquaculture practices, lease conditions, water quality and benthic information, among other parameters.That means we're checking everything from water upstream and downstream, we're looking under the farms at what's going on. A lot of what we do is also voluntary. It's not all just making sure we're ticking the boxes. It's also going above and beyond that to really look after our environment”, says Mikayla. Results of the environmental monitoring are shared with Ngāi Tahu and the power companies. 


Company-owned hatcheries and processing plants are located near Ohau, Christchurch and Kaiapoi. Each hatchery produces a slightly different quality of smolt (juvenile fish) and control of breeding and maturing enables reliable, quality production for the farms. As well, having hatcheries spread geographically, finishing farms are protected against unexpected weather or other events that might disrupt supply from any single location. The vertically integrated business model requires active management of each step, ensuring the final product is the best it can be. Documentation provides full traceability of each fish from the customer back to its batch of hatchery eggs and their parentage.


Specially formulated feed ensures no growth hormones or GMOs enter the food chain. As well, close monitoring of feeding quantities affects how much nitrogen is lost from the farms and prevents feed wastage. The company’s aim is, ‘to let nature take the lead; this means minimal human intervention and low stocking densities‘.


Among their global accreditations, Mt Cook Alpine Salmon was the first farm in the Southern Hemisphere to receive Best Aquaculture Practice Certification (BAP). They are proud to be rated ‘best choice’ by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and recognised as an industry leader in sustainable aquaculture.


Rick Ramsay adds there is also a lot of recreational fishing that goes on around the farm, so it is a good co-use of the water resource, with its power generation, recreation and food production, all bringing associated income and employment opportunities to the region.


Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021