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Rights: Scottie Productions, 2013
Published 15 September 2016 Referencing Hub media
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Māori investment groups want to find ways they can commercially and sustainably maximise their assets. For Wakatū Group, culturing sea cucumbers is an attractive opportunity. Growers can co-culture sea cucumbers under mussel farms and reduce the risks associated with growing a single species. As an added benefit, sea cucumbers utilise the waste from mussel beds, which fits in well with the principles of sustainability and kaitiakitanga. Marine biologist Kimberley Maxwell wants to establish a baseline for growing sea cucumbers to determine whether this can become a viable business opportunity.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Māori have always been scientists, and we continue to be scientists. Our science has allowed us to live, work and thrive in the world for hundreds of years. My name is Dr Ocean Mercier, and I’m a lecturer in pūtaiao Māori at the Victoria University of Wellington. My job takes me all over the world to talk about science and how traditional Māori knowledge is being married with western science here in Aotearoa in order to find innovative solutions to universal global issues.

In this programme, we’re going to show you how these worlds of science are intersecting and how the paths to our future are being formed.

Innovation in business often requires scientific partnerships to investigate product viability. With many iwi and Māori investment groups looking at ways they can commercially maximise their assets sustainably, kei te tahuri rātou ki ngā mātanga pūtaiao (they’re turning to scientists) to help them realise their vision. Kei te āta whai whakaaro ngā iwi takutai pērā i a Whakatohea me Wakatū (Coastal tribe Whakatohea and investment group Wakatū) about native marine species not widely eaten in this country that have considerable value overseas, a species that could help maintain and clean the substrata below their mussel farms while adding commercial value to their holdings.

I te moana i waho i te whanga o Mahanga i Poneke, tērā tētahi pāmu te whakahaerehia rā. E whakaaro auaha ana a Kimberley Maxwell, kaimātai koiora moana. Kei te whakatipu kiri taratara ia hei hoko ki tarawāhi. Ahakoa kāore e kainga ana ki Aotearoa, neke atu i te ono tekau miriona tāra tōna wāriu ki Haina. (Off the coast of Mahanga Bay in Poneke, a unique cultivation programme’s taking place deep below the sea surface. Marine biologist Kimberley Maxwell is a researcher thinking outside the square. She’s cultivating native sea cucumbers as a potential export product. Although they’re not usually eaten in New Zealand, the sea cucumber is estimated to be worth over $60 million in China.)

Kimberley Maxwell

See that? That’s it exhaling. So they can hold a lot of water inside their bodies. Most people say, “Sea cucumbers? Are those the things that spit their guts out? Oh, yeah, I’ve seen those over in the tropics,” so Fiji or Cook Islands, and they have wars with them. They’re kind of like water pistols. Not a lot of people have eaten them, they often ask what they taste like and they do take on the flavour of the dish that you’re cooking. Yeah, it’s definitely unique.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Kei ngā papa moana puta noa i te ao, te kiri taratara e noho ana. Kei te kimihia e ētahi nā te mea he kai rangatira ki a rātou. Ki roto o Ahia, he kai rangatira, he rongoā hoki. (Sea cucumbers are found on the seafloor around the world. Certain species are highly sought after as a delicacy, particularly in Asia, where they’re also valued for their medicinal properties.)

Kimberley Maxwell

It’s hard to tell looking at these creatures here that they’re a delicacy, but they’re in huge demand because of their benefits to health and as a food product. Sea cucumbers have been used in Chinese medicine since the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago, and they’re known to cleanse the blood and cleanse the kidneys and alleviate the symptoms of arthritis. So they have been investigating the chemical properties of the New Zealand sea cucumber and have found that it has the same properties as the Japanese spiny sea cucumber.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Ko te kiri taratara o Hapāni te ariki o ngā kiri taratara katoa o te ao, inā rā hoki, e rima mano tāra te utu mo ia kirokaramu. Nō nā noa nei, i kitea ai, he tino ōrite te kiri taratara taketake o konei ki tōna whānaunga o Hapāni. Nā reira tērā pea he uara nui tōna mō te hoko ki tāwāhi, he hua nui hoki ōna ki ngā iwi e kaingākau ana ki te mahi ahumoana. (The Japanese spiny sea cucumber is the most highly valued sea cucumber in the world and can fetch up to $5,000 a kilogram. It was recently discovered that our native sea cucumber bears a striking resemblance to its Japanese cousin. This could make it a potentially valuable export commodity and of interest to iwi involved in aquaculture.)

Paul Morgan

We are looking to identify species that we can introduce onto our farms and have multiple species for multiple revenues and to de-risk our farming operations. Now, on the land, we do that. We have multiple species of horticultural products, for instance. In the water, that’s more challenging. To do that, we would have to rear species in a hatchery like the sea cucumber, but if we can master and understand that and that there is a high-value market for that species, obviously, we are interested in the research that could deliver a species that’s valuable in the market.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Tērā pea ko te kiri taratara te taonga e whai pūtea nui ai ngā iwi mahi ahumoana. Engari, he iti te mōhio ki ngā āhuatanga o te kiri taratara, ā, kāore anō ia kia āta whakatipuria i tēnei whenua hei taonga hokohoko. Me piki te mōhiotanga e whai hua ai ngā roopu ahumoana i tēnei koiora taketake. (Sea cucumbers present a potentially lucrative opportunity to iwi aquaculture groups. However, little is known about the native sea cucumber, and it has never been commercially cultivated here before. For an aquaculture venture to be viable, more needs to be known about our native species.)

Kimberley Maxwell

That’s the gut. There’s not a lot to them, this is the gut here. So you can see that they eat the sediments. It is its respiratory tree – this is like its lungs that it uses to breathe. And it has one, two, three, four, five bands of muscles that run along the body and then the muscle wall. So this is the bit that is eaten, and then also the reproductive organs are eaten as well. We’re going to take a sample of this and have a look and see if it’s a boy or a girl.

Paul Morgan

As owners of aquaculture water space and mussel farmers, oyster farmers, it was interesting getting involved in the project because there’s an opportunity to utilise the waste generated by those shellfish, which essentially is potentially free feed, and see if we could grow out sea cucumbers under our farms.

Kimberley Maxwell

So in a standard scenario under a mussel farm, the mussels filter organic particles out of the water column and then they produce a whole lot of waste, and all of that waste concentrates on the bottom of the sea underneath the mussel farms. And the sea cucumbers will come along and consume that waste. They have a number of oral tentacles, and the oral tentacles have suckers on the end, and they put them out onto the sediments, and the sediments will stick to the suckers and then they’ll use the oral tentacles to feed the sediments back inside their oral cavity.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Kei te whakapau kaha ngā iwi whakangao, pērā i a Wakatū Incorporated me te Runanga o Whakatohea ki te mahi ahumoana matua o Aotearoa, arā, ki ngā pāmu kūtai. Ko te hiahia o aua roopu Māori, kia nui te pūtea, kia iti te pānga ki te taiao. Tērā pea ko te whakatipu kiri taratara ki raro iho i ngā pāmu kūtai te whakatutukihanga o aua whāinga e rua. (Iwi investors, like Wakatū Incorporated and the Whakatohea Māori Trust Board, are involved in New Zealand’s primary aquaculture industry of mussel farming. These groups are looking to maximise their financial returns and minimise their environmental impact. Growing sea cucumbers under their mussel farms could meet both these objectives.)

Paul Morgan

That’s very attractive for us because we do create waste naturally through the growing of shellfish, and in our case, mussels and oysters. And that is a valuable feed base, but if you haven’t got another species to utilise it, you know, that’s problematic, so we’re particularly interested in getting sea cucumbers under our farms so they can actually utilise that waste, and in the story and in our marketing and in terms of our values of kaitiakitanga – our guardianship – it fits very strongly with what we want to achieve in our farming practices.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Cultivating sea cucumbers under mussel farms offers a number of potential benefits, but because it’s never been done before in New Zealand, questions remain as to whether it can be commercially viable.

Marine biologist Kimberley Maxwell is studying whether sea cucumbers can be commercially cultivated in New Zealand. Her work is part of a joint venture kei wainganui i ngā ropu a iwi e rua me te umanga ahu moana o Haina (between two iwi investment groups and a Chinese aquaculture company.) The Chinese company Oriental Ocean Limited is one of a number of Asian businesses forging links with Māori investors.

Kimberley Maxwell

Oriental Ocean Limited had staff that came out to New Zealand to see the mussel farms in action and the plans that Whakatohea have to grow mussels up in the Bay of Plenty. While they were out on a boat tour, someone picked up some sea cucumbers and showed the people from China, and they couldn’t believe how similar they were in appearance and size to the sea cucumber that they culture. So the concept developed from there.

Dr Ocean Mercier

He tohunga a Manuka Henare ki ngā kaupapa pakihi me te ture. Kua roa ia e hikohiko ana ki te whai i te mahi a te maha o ngā pakihi Māori e whakatū hononga ana ki ngā pakihi o tāwāhi. (Manuka Henare is an expert on Māori business and law. He’s been following with interest the growing number of Māori investors making connections with overseas businesses.)

Manuka Henare

We’re going to discover in the 200 mile zone of New Zealand a lot more species that weren’t necessarily of significance historically for Māori but are of interest to others in the world. The question is, who does the harvesting? Who becomes the beneficiary of the new products and the wealth that’s created and so forth. So we’re likely to see a lot more of the sea cucumber projects in the coming years. A lot of it’s going to depend on have we got a good number of scientists in these areas?

Paul Morgan

When we started the project, we had an understanding of the Chinese know-how technology and method of growing cucumbers. We established a relationship with Oriental Ocean. They sent their person here who worked with us and who teamed up with our local scientist, Kimberley. Using their know-how, we began the hatchery process, the larval rearing, and because of that expertise skill, we were able to successfully rear millions of larvae.

Kimberley Maxwell

We do things differently here in New Zealand compared to China. For example, freshwater is a rare commodity in China, so they wouldn’t use it to clean their tanks. However, here in New Zealand, we are able to use freshwater, and it will kill anything that is used to living in a seawater environment. So we’re able to use freshwater to kill whereas they might have to employ a chemical to do the same job.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Mā te āta whakawhāiti mai i ngā tikanga toitū a te iwi Hainamana, kua mōhio a Kimberley me pēhea rā tana whakatipu i ngā kiri taratara maha o Aotearoa mō te wā tuatahi. He tuatahitanga tēnei momo mahi, ā, tērā pea ka nui te pānga ki te whanaketanga o tō tātou rāngai ahumoana. (By modifying well established Chinese techniques, Kimberley has been able to cultivate a large number of New Zealand sea cucumbers for the very first time. This is ground-breaking work that could have significant implications for our growing aquaculture industry.)

Kimberley Maxwell

OK, so we’ve looked at the gonads under the microscope and determined that the adult sea cucumbers are mature, and now we put them into a tank of warm water, and this will encourage the sea cucumbers to start to spawn. This is when they release the eggs and sperm, and the males go first and that encourages the females to release their eggs. And from this tank, we should get a few million eggs.

So here we’re weighing out some powdered algae, which we feed to the juvenile sea cucumbers. We import this from China because it’s made on a commercial scale there and it’s not made here in New Zealand, and our Chinese expert showed us that the sea cucumbers grow really well on it.

And once a month, we do a count of the sea cucumbers to determine survival. So we do a count of the sea cucumbers. We have three grades of sea cucumbers – this is the smallest grade. They’re 11 months old, and hopefully from here, we’ll be able to work out how long it takes for them to reach maturity, because at this point, nobody knows. So in this room, we have a hundred plates in each tank, and we have 10 tanks. So we just multiply up to work out how many sea cucumbers we have growing a month. We have 28,000 sea cucumbers, and basically space has been our limiting factor, so we’re really happy with our result.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Kaore e ārikarika ngā hua kua puta i te mahi a Kimberley ki ngā kiri taratara, nāna i kōkiri ngā kaupapa i pai ake ai te tipuranga mai me te oranga mai o taua momo. Hēoi, arā atu anō ngā mahi nui hei mahi e tutuki ai te wawata kia noho ngā kiri taratara o Aotearoa, hei taonga hoko ki tai. (Kimberley’s work with native sea cucumbers has yielded some promising results, and she’s managed to oversee significant improvements in their growth and survival rates. But a lot of work still remains to be done if New Zealand sea cucumbers are to become a viable export commodity.)

Kimberley Maxwell

So we’re trying to grow these guys in the nursery up to a size where they’ll survive out in the wild. At the moment, they’re about 0.7 grams on average, and when they get above 1 gram, then they should be big enough to put out to sea. Here, we’re changing the sea cucumbers from an unclean tank to a clean tank. It’s kind of like calving. When you have young animals, they need a bit more care than the older animals. So we’re trying to reduce the time they spend in the nursery and reduce the amount of time they’re handled and get them out to sea quicker – hopefully in 3 months.

Paul Morgan

The hurdle in the research project we’ve come up is essentially growth rates, yields. For all projects – whether it be a species in the water or whether it be a variety or a plant or an animal on the land – we need given production, given yields, given growth rates over periods of time. It’s no different for sea cucumbers. We’re finding that there’s issues around their growth. We don’t know whether it’s been infrastructure, whether it’s been temperature, whether it’s been diet, you know, there’s a number of considerations that will specifically have to be looked at, because we do know in the economic modelling of the species that we will need to achieve certain numbers and growth rates for the species to be viable.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Sea cucumbers present a potentially lucrative opportunity to coastal iwi, but whether our native species can be grown at a commercially viable rate remains to be seen. Kimberley is also yet to find out how her first batch of juveniles will cope with moving out of the lab and into the sea.

A joint venture between Māori and Chinese investors is looking at establishing a new aquaculture export industry in Aotearoa. Native sea cucumbers, not traditionally eaten in this part of the world, could fetch up to $5,000 per kilo at current prices due to their health-giving properties. Coastal iwi are looking at growing the sea cucumbers underneath their mussel farms, which would provide a free feed source for their unusual new harvest. At Mahanga Bay in Wellington, marine biologist Kimberley Maxwell has been cultivating sea cucumbers in a lab environment. Initial results have been promising, but Kimberley is yet to see how her first batch of juveniles will fare out in the ocean.

Kimberley Maxwell

This is a world exclusive putting the first hatchery-raised sea cucumber juveniles out into the ocean. We know the initial numbers that we’re going to put out in each cage, and we’ll count how many are in the cages at a later date.

Dr Phil Heath

With a coarse mesh cage, it’ll keep the sea cucumbers in but it’ll still let food fall through the mesh so the sea cucumbers can feed. So they’ll be feeding on sort of natural mud and sand and stuff that settles down – the mesh to keep them in but coarse enough to let the food through.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Kei te tukuna ngā kiri taratara a Kimberley kia raro i te pāmu kūtai i te moana i te whanga o Mahanga. Neke atu i te tahi kirokaramu te katoa. Me pērā te rahi kia ora tonu ai te nuinga o rātou i ngā whiu o te noho ki te papa o te moana. (Kimberley’s sea cucumbers are being placed under a mussel farm offshore from Mahanga Bay. They all weigh over 1 gram, the minimum size required to stand a good chance of survival on the ocean floor.)

Kimberley Maxwell

I’m very excited. I’ve been looking after these sea cucumbers for the last year, and now they’re going to their new home, and put them to the bottom and see how they survive and how fast they grow. When the sea cucumbers get to the bottom, we’re hoping that the bottom mesh of the cage will sink into the sediments, the sediments will settle over the mesh and the sea cucumbers will start to graze on the sediments.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Ka haria e Kimberley me ōna hoa, ngā taiwhanga me ngā koiora o roto, ki te papa o te moana. E rite ana tēnei ki te momo taiao ka kitea i raro pāmu kūtai. Koinei te momo kāinga e whakatipuria ai te kiri taratara hei hoko ki ngā whenua o tawāhi. Hei muri ake nei, ka kawea ake anō ki runga kia kite ai a Kimberley, e hia rawa o ana kiri taratara kei te ora tonu, ā, pēhea rawa hoki te kaha o te tipu. Mā tēnei momo tatau, ka puta he māramatanga mēnā rā he hua rānei o te whakatipu kiri taratara hei hoko. (Kimberley and her colleagues will carry the cages and their cargo to the seafloor. This resembles the type of environment found under a commercial mussel farm, which is where sea cucumbers could be harvested as an export commodity. At a later date, they’ll be lifted back up, and Kimberley will find out how many of her sea cucumbers have survived and how fast they’ve grown. These numbers will provide a much clearer indication whether cultivating sea cucumbers is commercially viable.)

Kimberley Maxwell

Of course, the cages landed on top of each other, so we separated them out and put them into places where there’s a bit more sediment and not so much mussel shell and then pushed the cages down into the sediment. And then open the bungys, sprinkle the sea cucumbers in and make sure they’re all on the bottom, have a look at them, and then put the lids back on. Yeah, there’s a few sea cucumbers down there, so I think they should be OK. There we are! There’s something I prepared earlier! Hopefully they’ll come out looking like this at the end.

Paul Morgan

At Wakatū, we’ve been involved with oysters for a decade and perfecting a system for the rearing of oysters. Sea cucumbers will take 5 to 10 years, and they will need these questions to be answered, but as more knowledge evolves – and remember, this is done in the context of the international market. China has had a major investment in the farm production of sea cucumbers. They’re a premium product if you can produce the quality, the physical appearance and the texture/taste profile required for the market. A lot of challenges, a lot of challenges. That’s what science and research projects are there to, over time, solve. But they do take time.

Kimberley Maxwell

At the moment, we’ve established a baseline for growing sea cucumbers in terms of survival and growth rates. But at these survival and growth rates, it’s not commercially viable, so we want to increase productivity by reducing the amount of time that the sea cucumbers are here inside the hatchery and in the nursery, which will then decrease the amount of labour and running costs. And once the sea cucumbers are out under the farms, then you don’t have to put so much effort in, and your product will naturally grow. If we’re able to do that, we’ll be able to repay the support given to us by the iwi partners, the Chinese partner and funding from the Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Manuka Henare

Our industries, Māori industries are mainstream New Zealand industries. It’s dairying, it’s sheep, it’s wool, it’s materials, it’s trees, tourism – all these things – that’s mainstream New Zealand, so whatever Māori do will be for the benefit of New Zealand. We are already producing at a higher rate than other sectors of New Zealand accumulatively, yet the public’s perception is the opposite. And so the more wealth creation we can do, and we must do, is going to always be for the good of New Zealand.

Kimberley Maxwell

Now we’re at a point where we’ve had a lot of new questions arise about how to culture the sea cucumbers and how to improve our methods of culture. Also, how to grow the sea cucumbers out in the field to harvestable size. Nobody knows how long it takes a New Zealand sea cucumber to grow from an egg to an adult. So we’re hoping that some of these questions can be answered in the future using these juveniles.

Paul Morgan

We now have probably the most knowledge in New Zealand on sea cucumbers. We’ve hit a big hurdle, and we need to unravel the mysteries of the questions that we want to find out about, but we’ll work through that process, and hopefully we can come out where actually sea cucumbers can be placed under farms and will be a commercial species. Time will tell.

Dr Ocean Mercier

Ko te mea kē e tino mārama ana, iwi will continue to explore new research and partnerships with overseas companies as they seek to maximise returns from their natural resources. Marrying their kaitiaki responsibility while generating financial returns and forging new relationships with overseas partners, investors like Wakatū are showing themselves to be at the kōtihi o ngā kaupapa auaha i roto i te mahi ahumoana.

Acknowledgements
Video courtesy of Scottie Productions.
© Scottie Productions, 2013.