Written by Lilani Goonesena
The sleek head of an Australian Fur Seal pokes out of the water and eyes the salmon pens before diving underwater again. Seals are a regular sighting around Atlantic Salmon Farms and one of the industry’s biggest problems.
But it won’t be for long. Huon Aquaculture are rolling out new ‘fortress pens’, the world’s first preventative seal and sea-bird system. Designed in-house and built locally, the formidable netting utilises steel-like rope typically used in bulletproof vests.
“Seals will either try to get in by climbing over or biting a hole in the net. Or they strike fish through the net underwater and when the fish falls to the bottom, they eat it through the net. These new nets prevent them from doing that”, explains our tour guide for the day, David Whyte, Group Technical Manager at Huon Aquaculture Pty Ltd.
This is just one of the innovations we learn about on our first day of the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Tasmanian food produce tour. We are taken out on boats in the freezing winter morning to see the salmon pens up close and personal.
Huon Aquaculture is Australia’s second biggest Atlantic Salmon producer and will grow 17,000 tonnes of salmon this year. It’s a fast expanding business with domestic sales alone jumping 120% in the last four years.
The Australian Salmon industry is only 30 years old and it’s rapidly evolving. And Huon Aquaculture is already selling some of their new, patented technologies back overseas to the countries that pioneered the industry.
In a few months, they will roll out their well-boat, a huge 75m “floating fish tank”, as David describes it. Its purpose is to clean the live fish of Amoeba that left untreated can kill the fish, and to transport them to harvest. It can also re-capture and re-use its fresh water, eliminating the current system of towing 1000 tonnes of water down the river very slowly and carefully by boat.
“This is new technology for us here in Tasmania. Smaller versions have been used for other things overseas so the technology is proven but the application is brand new”, says David.
Huon Aquaculture is also implementing new feeding systems on bigger barges to streamline the feeding process and limit infrastructure on the pen itself. It’s all part of the plan to move Atlantic Salmon farming offshore to deeper waters. The deeper water sites are better able to manage the bigger pens and they also lessen the noise for the local communities.
“Any future fish farming in Tasmania will be further away from civilisation”, says David.
It’s all a rather impressive operation. “You think fishing is just going out on a boat and getting a catch but there’s a whole element of research and development that is behind it”, says Brooke Adey, a waiter from Chianti in Adelaide. “Seeing it all is an eye opening experience”.
Technological development is just one side of the operations. Huon Aquaculture is also a world leader in fish health and wellbeing, closely managing welfare throughout their lifecycle. They even won the 2013 Biosecurity Farmer of the Year Award.
Each lease we visit along the pristine Huon River and D’entrecasteaux Channel has a number of pens each holding 60,000 fish. It seems an enormous number yet astonishingly we learn that this compromises one per cent ratio to water. Huon Aquaculture has the lowest stocking density in the world.
They currently produce two species – Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Trout with plans to add another two in the next few years. But from a business perspective, they need to choose carefully as each species differs in readiness and development.
David Whyte says “we can grow other species such as Striped trumpeter, but no one is going to pay for it because it costs too much to produce. We’d be out of business in two years. It’s a shame because it’d be a lovely fish to grow, they’re the beagles of the sea”.
As Huon Aquaculture grows and diversifies, David emphasises that they aim to focus on what they do best. “We grow fish, that’s what we do”.