Abalone: New Zealand's shining example of aquaculture excellence

Marine scientist Andrea Alfaro may be one of the few people who knows what it is like to be studied by sea life, rather than the other way around.

Andrea Alfaro

Alfaro is one of only two official ‘aquanauts’ in New Zealand, having lived, slept and eaten underwater for six days.
 
Her time studying sponges in the Aquarius II research habitat - “like a bus about 20m underwater off the Florida Keys” - officially cemented her love for the sea.
 
“You wake up and you’re looking out the porthole at the fish and you feel like you are in an aquarium - but they are on the outside looking in at you. Those animals are at home, and I am not. It is potentially a dangerous place but a place you are privileged to be in.”
 
As well as discovering the novelties of being under pressure for prolonged periods (“You can't whistle, and you lose your sense of taste. And you get really giggly because of the high nitrogen in your body”) the experience gave her great respect for the sea and the seafood that comes out of it.
 
Alfaro’s interest in the ocean started in her native Chile before her family moved to the United States, where she later studied at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. Then her partner, a geologist, got a job at the University of Auckland. “We came for three years about 20 years ago, and now have a Kiwi daughter who is 13,” she says. “We like living here. And there are amazing underwater habitats here worth protecting and investigating.”

Alfaro had studied mussels in the US, and a new PhD and large body of research on New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels soon earned her the nickname the ‘Mussel Lady’. “It stuck,” she laughs.

Now more formally known as Professor of Marine Ecology and Aquaculture at AUT (Auckland University of Technology), her role leading the Aquaculture Biotechnology Research Group has her overseeing research across a range of shellfish and fin fish, from salmon to the lesser-known geoduck. “In New Zealand what you have is very much applied science. It's an area I love. In terms of aquaculture biotech we’re very innovative. While we’re small by world standards, a lot of the work we do is truly groundbreaking.”

One shining example is the research being undertaken on New Zealand’s unique abalone, or pāua, with its distinctive iridescent blue shell.

“Pāua is a growing industry in New Zealand. We have the mandate of reaching $1bn return from aquaculture by 2025, and this is one of the species that could significantly increase in market share and value.”
 
Key to making that happen will be hosting the 11th International Abalone Symposium in Auckland in 2021, following a successful bid led by Alfaro and her colleague Ali Seyfoddin. Expected to attract around 250 of the world’s pre-eminent abalone researchers, farms and fisheries, it will be the first time the event is held in New Zealand and only the second time in the Southern Hemisphere.
 
Alfaro is now working with Tourism New Zealand’s Business Events team to further market the event to international delegates.
 
“It's really exciting, it's going to showcase New Zealand and something that is very iconic. Our endemic species, Haliotis iris, is really sought after in China. At weddings and banquets in China you tend to have abalone from New Zealand as a status symbol. I imagine this event will be quite heavily attended by the Chinese as abalone is an important species for them in terms of production and consumption.
 
“We have a big shell export market as well. In places like South Korea where they do a lot of inlay, most of the things you see with that blue colour is New Zealand pāua shell.
 
“So its a huge opportunity for New Zealand. Attendees will be looking to create markets, make connections, initiate research collaborations, and learn from us.”

New Zealand’s reputation as a premium producer of abalone and an innovator in the industry was a major factor in winning the symposium, Alfaro notes.
 
“New Zealand is not a mass-produced, high-volume industry. Our focus has been on quality, health, plus that New Zealand clean and green sustainable reputation, so we are way ahead of other products in the world.
 
“In global abalone production there has been a series of health threats, including pathogens that have decimated the Chinese and Australian markets, and even wild populations. We haven't had any of that. We are ahead of the game in terms of immunology research, we’re high-tech in terms of protection and creating a buffer for our industry.
 
“We have developed probiotics for our species that increase their growth by 20%. When you are talking about a species that takes four to six years to get to cocktail size, that’s essentially a year of growth that you can save. We’ve also developed an encapsulated feed - a coating that increases the palatability of the probiotic and is stable in sea water. It doesn’t disintegrate until it gets to the gut of the animal, and you get 100% consumption and zero waste from the food. If you don't have waste you don’t get bacterial growth. We are now looking for funding to take that to commercial level.”

Moana New Zealand’s Blue Abalone operation in Bream Bay, Northland, will be one of the sites hosting field trips around the symposium. “It is the Disneyland of pāua, it is an amazing facility,” Alfaro says. “You have three storeys high of tanks laden with trays of abalone.” Other trips will likely include fishery sites in Kaikoura and a new pāua farm Ocean Beach in Bluff.
 
Alfaro remains wowed by New Zealand’s fantastic waters, and hopes visitors might also explore their magic. “The Bay of Islands is magnificent, as is Ahipara, the wild kelp forests in the South Island… basically all of New Zealand underwater-wise has unique flora and fauna. You go underwater and you get that sense that you are in another world.”
 
Alfaro is now keen to add more New Zealand flavour to the conference programme, including a cook-off between top chefs cooking the country’s beautiful seafood, and a experience involving traditional Māori carving of pāua shell.

“New Zealand is already a place most people want to visit, so adding those other elements that are special to us will attract even more people.”