Greenshell mussels take off!

Greenshell mussels take off!

Last week, the Cawthron Institute announced it would be spending $2.2 million on upgrading their research facility, the Glenhaven Aquaculture Centre.  Here’s a piece about its very beginnings, a wonderful success story.

Back in the early 90s, Cawthron Institute was approached by a young marine biologist with a proposal. Sam Buchanan wanted us to give him a job so he could complete a research project for his Ph.D.  He claimed that he was on the track to solving a problem that had stumped New Zealand scientists for the previous 20 years or more: how to grow Greenshell™ mussels in a hatchery.  (If you haven’t heard of these before, see here for more on this iconic New Zealand shellfish.)

There were several problems with this idea. Cawthron didn’t have a hatchery, or anything remotely like the facilities that he would need. There was no money for such a project. Finally, we were going to take some convincing that this young guy could succeed where some of New Zealand’s most experienced aquaculture scientists from a government laboratory (now part of NIWA) had failed miserably.

Sam was very persuasive. He not only persuaded us to take him on, but gave us sufficient ammunition to persuade the New Zealand government to fund a research contract with a new player. From memory, the contract was for a period of about three years.

Cawthron decided to take a punt and invest in a new aquaculture research centre. After all, aquaculture had become a core research area for Cawthron over the previous five years or so.  But money was tight, so suppliers and contractors were screwed down to the minimum, and frills such as offices or toilets had to wait (there was a playground 500m away, with a perfectly good set of toilets).

The scientists had to do a lot themselves.  Before he could really get into his Ph.D. research, Sam spent much of the first winter working inside a 100 m concrete pipe, hammering in concrete bolts so we could attach water intake pipes. This large concrete pipe served as a drain for the region, so conditions were not ideal.

The modern laboratory in ’94 is shown here:

Genhaven lab 93b

On the other hand, we had a few things going for us.  Sam had good support from an outstanding research leader, Henry Kaspar.

Nelson's Boulder and the Glenhaven Aquaculture Centre
Nelson's Boulder and the Glenhaven Aquaculture Centre

The seawater quality was superb and very consistent throughout the year, unaffected by rainfall or floods.

The shortage of money led to a climate of innovation. We had to find smart ways of doing things. I remembered that famous quote from Rutherford “we had no money, so we had to think” (though I suspect the Cawthron staff got heartily sick of me repeating it). What’s more, it turned out that Sam’s new approach was the right one.  Within a remarkably short space of time (i.e. three years), he was achieving consistent results and attention began to shift to the next phase: a selective breeding programme.  I probably should deal with that separately, so look out for some other posts such as: “Where do mussels come from?” and  ” selective breeding of shellfish”.

Eventually Sam was approached by headhunters, offering him an amazing salary to run a hatchery producing pearl oysters in East Timor or Northwest Australia.  It was an offer he could not refuse. But, while we were sad to see him go, we couldn’t grudge him his success. He had made a huge contribution to Cawthron Institute.

15 years later, this is what that Glenhaven aquaculture centre looked like:

Glenhaven aerial
Glenhaven aerial 2

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