Richard Robinson

Fish out of water

People and livestock gobble so much fish that the seas soon won’t keep up. Is the answer to grow fish on land? After decades of research, scientists are cracking the secrets to commercially tank-rearing a handful of New Zealand’s iconic ocean creatures—pāua, whitebait, kingfish and hāpuku.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

For 100 years, the Ocean Beach freezing works turned sheep into chops and sausages. The assortment of roughly 50 dilapidated buildings still perches on a narrow isthmus between the whitecaps of Foveaux Strait and sheltered Bluff Harbour. Back when New Zealand was still built on the sheep’s back, before refrigerated transport was perfected, trucks and trains brought the animals from across Southland to be dispatched here by a production line of butchers. Ocean Beach, apparently, still holds a national record for the most lambs slaughtered in a day—20,000.

When the freezing works closed in 1991, around 1500 people—many of them Māori and Pasifika—lost their jobs overnight. Bluff’s population dwindled, and the buildings sat mostly empty for a generation. Today, dozens of people work here, not thousands, but Ocean Beach is back in the business of converting animals into food—though its gutters now run with salt water instead of blood.

Once a bustling meatworks, the Ocean Beach facility in Bluff is now being used to farm pāua, whitebait and seaweed. Farmers can pump cool seawater from either Bluff Harbour or Foveaux Strait—a useful contingency in case of an oil spill or other disaster.
This building might one day also act as an ark for declining wild pāua, says the company’s chief scientist Andrea Alfaro.

From the outside, Ocean Beach resembles a collection of crumbling haunted houses—salt-lashed concrete, gory dribbles of rust, graffiti, peeling paint. Inside, though, it’s teeming with technology and life. Twelve million whitebait and 900,000 pāua fatten in hundreds of tanks. Two different seaweed start-ups base themselves here too.

Businessman and property investor Blair Wolfgram bought Ocean Beach in 2018, after falling in love with Bluff at the annual oyster festival. There was rubbish everywhere, and the remains of a previous attempt at pāua farming were stacked in a corner, “covered in pigeon crap”. But pāua prices had risen, and Wolfgram had capital to invest in transforming the place.

Some of the people who’d worked there 15 years ago still lived in town, and Wolfgram hired them; he even lured one back from Australia. He formed the New Zealand Abalone Company, and soon invited other aquaculture outfits to move into Ocean Beach, share knowledge, and take advantage of the site’s existing resource consents to use and discharge treated seawater—one of the biggest barriers to setting up an aquaculture business on land. (The meatworks, on the other hand, faced no restrictions—back then, it was “blood and guts straight into the harbour”, Wolfgram says.)

Wolfgram also joined forces with Auckland University of Technology (AUT) professor of marine ecology and aquaculture Andrea Alfaro, who began researching a pāua-specific feed in the uni’s labs, and sending her students to Bluff for field research and work experience; many of them now work in one of the four companies hosted so far at Ocean Beach.

“I call it the Disney World of aquaculture,” says Alfaro, who is now also Ocean Beach’s chief scientist. “Every little room, it’s a different ride. It’s got its magic, it’s got scary bits, it’s got fun bits. It’s a really exciting place.”

Broodstock kingfish are selected for their fast growth, and some can reach 1.7 metres in length and weigh more than 40 kilograms.“To handle them we actually have to knock them out,” says Alvin Setiawan. The NIWA team drop a New Zealand-made anaesthetic called Acquiesce into the water, which puts the fish to sleep so they can be monitored for science or moved for tank cleaning.

Sushi. Filet-O-Fish. Tuna sandwiches. Lobster banquets. Prawns on the barbie. Chicken and pig food. Friday-night snapper and chips. Global seafood consumption is booming, but most fisheries are at capacity and overfishing is rife. To eat more fish, we need to farm it. In 2019, the New Zealand government announced a national aquaculture strategy, with the aim of making the country a “world leader in sustainable and innovative aquaculture management” and boosting annual sales fivefold, to $3 billion by 2035.

That support looks likely to survive the change in government, in some form; pre-election, National made a more modest commitment of “doubling the output from aquaculture in the next ten years”, and their coalition agreement with ACT and New Zealand First promises to “enhance” aquaculture, among other primary industries.

Some of the expansion will take place in the sea along our coastlines, or offshore, but as marine aquaculture faces increasing challenges and uncertainties—rapidly warming oceans, disease risks and disgruntled communities—some companies and researchers around New Zealand are perfecting a different sort of fish farming: from egg to plate, entirely on land.

By 2040, a quarter of the world’s salmon is expected to come from land-based fish farms. Mount Cook Alpine Salmon plans to build one such farm near Twizel, to provide 4000 tonnes of fish each year—the equivalent of the annual commercial snapper take between Cape Reinga and East Cape.

But we’re taming treasured native species, too—pāua, kingfish, hāpuku and whitebait—with possible advantages for our diminishing wild stocks. Can it be done sustainably? Humanely? And does it matter if your kaimoana comes from a West Coast estuary or a tank in the old meatworks in Bluff?

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At Ocean Beach, Wolfgram and Alfaro take me to see pāua at all stages of their life cycle, spread through a dozen echoey rooms and open hallways of the old factory. (They hope to open a version of this tour to the public in 2024.) Next to the erstwhile slaughterboard, they show me the “Boom Boom Room”, where the team pamper a few of the farm’s 1000 broodstock pāua—originally collected off Rakiura—and encourage them to spawn. “The adults are treated like royalty,” says Wolfgram. They’ll live out their approximately 20-year lifespan in a dark, cosy tank nearby.

Meanwhile, their miniature larval offspring swim around in large plastic tanks for a week, getting hungry. Then they’re moved to a series of rooms dubbed “kindies” where, in the presence of the right kind of red seaweed, they’ll transform into a still-microscopic snail-like creature, settle on the bottom and start feeding—voraciously.

The team try to provide the perfect “garden” for the invisible pāua babies, with a mix of different seaweeds. “It’s like sheep in a tiny paddock,” says Alfaro. “We’re trying to get the right growing conditions for the seaweed, and keep ahead of the pāua so they don’t run out of food.”

After a few weeks, you can see them with the naked eye—white specks the size of a grain of sand. In another tank, they’re the size of sesame seeds, then sunflower seeds. By four or five months they graduate from kindy, and are started on the AUT-developed pāua feed made on site. Alfaro says she can’t tell me exactly what’s in it, but it’s all New Zealand ingredients, including insect proteins, some fish meal and waste products from the wine industry. “Pāua are sloppy eaters,” she adds.

Inside Ocean Beach, nearly a million young pāua cluster in dozens of tanks.

To reduce waste and keep the tanks cleaner, the team wrap the feed in little capsules, which the pāua can eat whole. “They just go crazy for it. With their foot they almost make little arms and grab them and push them underneath.” It reminds her of chipmunks stuffing nuts in their mouths.

In the wild, algae camouflages pāua’s shells. Here, with filtered water, a regular cleaning schedule and no threats—apart from the eventual human consumer—the outer shells become a shockingly beautiful turquoise, a matte version of their iridescent insides.

Scattered in their thousands across enormous shallow tanks, they resemble a dragon’s hoard of blue-toned jewels.

Pāua can take at least six years to grow to full adult size, so the company sells them “cocktail-size”—three-to five-year-olds around seven or eight centimetres long. So far, you can taste them at high-end restaurants, including Queenstown’s Amisfield, or at some fish markets, and the company plans to export them one day. They’re an easier and more tender mouthful than fully grown adult pāua, and a rare treat—it’s illegal to take wild pāua when they’re so small.

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Another of Ocean Beach’s huge sheds is home to Manāki Whitebait, a 20-year-old company that has just moved some of its operations from Warkworth to Bluff to take advantage of more space, cooler temperatures and cheaper seawater.

In the wild, newly hatched whitebait travel from the rivers to the oceans and back again a season later; here, that great migration is contained within these walls. I watch as millions of young giant kōkupu swim laps of circular tanks, their dotty black eyes and long stomachs streaking their gelatinous, transparent bodies like punctuation marks.

Meanwhile, in Warkworth, other staff “milk” the eggs from sedated female giant kōkupu, collecting about five kilos—two million eggs—each week.
The Manāki whitebait farm in Bluff does not use antibiotics, so the tanks are disinfected with UV light and regularly cleaned.

Manāki originally started breeding native galaxid fish to replenish declining wild populations. Here, they’re experimenting with commercial-scale farming. The company is now owned by the Ngāti Tahu–Ngāti Whāoa Rūnanga Trust, a central North Island hapū, who saw both financial and environmental possibilities in the idea of domesticating whitebait.

“We’re farmers,” says trust chairman Roger Pikia (Ngāti Tahu–Ngāti Whāoa, Ngāti Hikairo, Waikato Tainui). “We understand the logic of farming animals. It’s just another way to propagate the species and make sure that it survives.” They also hoped to “make a fortune”.

Manāki general manager Paul Decker comes from farming stock too. Growing up on his parents’ dairy farm in rural Queensland, 10-year-old Decker started breeding fish in the farm dams: zebra danios for medical research, Siamese fighting fish for the ornamental trade. Farming whitebait at scale, however, turned out to be more complex.

At first, the team assumed they’d need to grow all five galaxid species that make up the wild whitebait catch. But the largest and most abundant species, the juvenile inanga, was “hyperactive” and overly carnivorous. “It eats all of its cousins,” says Decker. “So when we went to harvest out of a mixed tank, we only got inanga because it ate everybody else.”

Less than three months after hatching, the captive whitebait are ready to eat. “Any farmer or market gardener would be rapt with that turnaround time,” says Manāki investor Roger Pikia. From one 10,000-litre tank, staff harvest roughly 250 kilograms of whitebait. “The question I always get is, ‘Do they taste the same as wild white bait?’” says the company’s Paul Decker. “Of course I’m gonna say they’re better—I’m a farmer.”

Giant kōkopu, on the other hand, have a more relaxed feeding style—more leopard lying in wait than sprinting cheetah. They consequently have an excellent feed-conversion ratio—a crucial measure in aquaculture. It means young giant kōkupu stack on one kilo of weight for every 1.2 kilograms of food. (That magic number is 1.8 for New Zealand farmed chinook salmon, 6–10 for beef and almost 20 for lamb.) Manāki decided to focus on the giants.

In Bluff, 23-year-old operations manager Michael Meares, one of Alfaro’s former students, shows me through the vast, high-tech headquarters. “I’m just a fish nerd,” he tells me. “And I really love whitebait.” Near the entrance, freshwater tanks wrapped in silver insulation house the male broodstock. Most of the female kōkopu are in Warkworth, so their relationships are long-distance. Up north, staff strip the eggs from the sedated mothers by hand—the fish equivalent of milking cows—and air-freight them to Invercargill. In Bluff, the team mix the eggs with the males’ milt. “It’s like baking a cake,” says Decker.

[Chapter Break]

Sounds simple, but successfully growing fish entirely on land at commercial scale is practically rocket science. Figuring out how to keep a marine animal alive and thriving at every stage of its complex life cycle—and doing it for a reasonable price—often takes researchers decades to crack, and each species is its own brand of trouble. Manāki chief scientist Tagried Kurwie has made several breakthroughs that have increased whitebait survival rates and made the operation possible.

First, year-round production. In the wild, male giant kōkopu only produce milt in June and July. But by manipulating the light hours and water temperature in each covered tank, the team can ensure there are always some males in season. “Some of them think it’s summer, some of them think it’s winter, and everything in between,” says Meares.

Next, keeping the fertilised eggs alive. Kōkopu eggs are sticky, enveloped in a layer of mucus to help them adhere to grasses at a stream’s edge. In the tanks, the eggs clump together, smother each other and die; but separating them by hand takes ages, and there are problems with mould. So Kurwie tried 10-litre plastic hatching jars used in aquaculture overseas, which constantly cycle freshwater through and keep the eggs in suspension—and it worked.

Kōkopu swarm a tank at Manaki Whitebait in the former Ocean Beach freezing works site in Bluff.

But even then, the eggs sometimes wouldn’t hatch. Kurwie worked out that transferring the eggs to a small bowl of still water after 25 days mimics the disruption of nature’s spring tides, and triggers the embryos to squirm, using their pectoral fins to break open the egg. Then they’re gently tipped into saltwater to start their short lives as whitebait.

Meares shows me a tank of 800,000 wriggling, see-through babies barely bigger than mosquito larvae, hatched the morning of the Rugby World Cup final. “We named them all Defeat,” he says, sighing. For the first month of their lives, they eat brine shrimp—sea monkeys—then have to be weaned onto pellets of increasing size as they grow. Just three and a half months after the cake-mixing, the whitebait are ready to become fritters. Meares’s team scoops them up in a big net, drains the water, and thrusts them into a giant one-degree Celsius cooler. “That kills them instantly, humanely, and keeps the product nice and fresh,” he says.

[Chapter Break]

As a kid growing up in Indonesia, Alvin Setiawan had a tropical aquarium. He learned the hard way not to keep tiger barbs in the same tank as angel fish, and spent all his pocket money on fish food. “Fish were the first animal that I really loved,” he says. Now, as an aquaculture scientist at NIWA’s Northland Aquaculture Centre in Ruakākā, he’s got his 10-year-old self’s dream job: coordinating research in dozens of supersized aquariums, home to around 300 broodstock kingfish, 100 adult hāpuku, and millions of baby fish destined to become sashimi.

Inside an enormous two-storey shed, two rows of four 350,000-litre tanks 11 metres across take up the top floor. Each is home to tens of thousands of sleek young kingfish. They’re quite variable in colour—some are pure baby-blue, while others have a yellow stripe or speckles.

At sea, these muscular, torpedo-shaped predators are top of the food chain; here, they orbit the tank in endless circles, waiting to be fed. Every hour or two, day and night, staff toss in dark-brown pellets of food—it looks like sheep poo, or salty fishy liquorice—and the water roils in an artificial work-up.

Twenty years ago, NIWA was looking for a warm-water alternative to salmon, and bet on our native yellowtail kingfish, or haku. “It ticked all the boxes,” explains chief scientist Andrew Forsythe (he also grew up on a dairy farm, in Canada).

Japan farms a similar species, and it’s in high demand in both Asian and Western cuisines. Compared to many fish, our kingfish’s life history is relatively simple. “We’re not talking about an animal that’s got some weird larval stage where the eyes have to go from one side of the head to the other, like a flounder,” Forsythe says. Haku breed readily in captivity, reach a harvestable size of 50 centimetres and three kilos within a year, and they’re “extremely efficient at converting food to flesh”. (Their magic number is about 1.5, nearly as good as kōkopu.)

Proving you can breed an animal in the lab is one thing, but growing them commercially is a whole different kettle of fish. Over the years, the team has figured out the conditions kingfish need to survive and grow as fast and efficiently as possible—the temperature of the water, the rate and amount of feed, the degree of oxygenation, the size of the tanks and how many fish can thrive inside them.

It helps that, in the last two decades, culinary tastes have changed, Forsythe says. “The culture of meat and three veg is gone. People want variety, and they recognise that you don’t need half a kilo of animal protein on your plate.”

NIWA scientist Alvin Setiawan examines three-day old kingfish larvae.
Kingfish are particularly well suited for farming in land-based systems, he says: they grow quickly, seem relatively content to live out their days in large, circular tanks—and people around the world want to eat them.

Like Bluff’s “cocktail” pāua, NIWA will serve up a different product to wild-caught adult kingfish. “It’s like lamb versus mutton,” Forsythe says. The fat content is higher in the farmed fish—a quality desired by chefs. “It’s not that we ram a lot of fat in them. It’s that they always have enough to eat all the time, whereas with the wild fish it’s feast or famine.”

To me, the idea of a tame kingfish seems slightly uncanny—but Forsythe reminds me that people have been farming carp and oysters for thousands of years. To our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the idea of domestic chickens and sheep must have seemed similarly strange the first time they encountered them. “This is a new food, in a way,” he says.

The first commercial harvest of around a tonne will take place this January. After being stunned to death—staff aim to complete the entire capturing, killing and icing process within 30 seconds—the kingfish, like the pāua, will probably be sold at premium restaurants such as Auckland’s Cocoro or Taupō’s Huka Lodge. “You won’t see them at Pak’nSave or New World just yet,” says Forsythe. But in two years’ time, the facility aims to produce 600 tonnes per year—about the same as recreational fishers spear or fight on a line each year, and three times what the commercial boats haul in. Then the researchers will shift their attention to hāpuku.

[Chapter Break]

Other New Zealand companies hope to farm kingfish in pens at sea—and Forsythe is keen to point out that these operations are not necessarily harmful to the environment or to fish. “They’re generally very well run and have minimal effect.” Alfaro, too, says New Zealand aquaculture is highly policed compared with many other countries, with fairly strict biosecurity and water-testing requirements.

Still, land-based systems have several key advantages, Setiawan says. They take up very little space: “A 600-tonne-per-year farm and it’s half a football field.” (For comparison, you’d need 6000 hectares—at least 6000 rugby fields—to grow that much lamb.) After treatment, water coming in from the ocean—300 litres per second—is close to sterile and contains few pathogens. Farmed fish never interact with wild ones. As with the whitebait, you can manipulate temperature and light to ensure year-round supply.

Land-based farms are more insulated from storms and marine heatwaves—which in 2022 forced New Zealand King Salmon to lay off more than 100 staff and close farms in the Marlborough Sounds after high temperatures killed 1300 tonnes of fish—and much less fish waste ends up in the environment.

Aquaculture technician Mike Exton scoops a kingfish that’s almost ready to harvest from one of the vast pens at NIWA’s new recirculating aquaculture system. NIWA says the kingfish feed is certified sustainable and free of growth hormones, antibiotics, and artificial colouring.

At NIWA, after the sea water passes through the tanks, between 95 and 99 per cent of it is cleaned, recycled and used again. The rest is treated before being discharged into the ocean. Two different microbial communities convert the fish waste into nitrates, nitrogen, methane and phosphorus, small amounts of which do end up in the atmosphere or ocean. (Setiawan is exploring ways these by-products could be used as biofuels, fertiliser or feed for other types of aquaculture instead.)

Above all, farming on land means greater control—as well as greater responsibility, says Forsythe. “If you’re farming fish, you’re taking responsibility for satisfying all their environmental requirements. So you’re pumping water, you’re providing oxygen, you’re treating the waste—and you can never turn it off.” You use huge amounts of electricity, and you need multiple back-up plans in case of disaster. When Cyclone Gabrielle took out the power at Ruakākā, for instance, the farm immediately switched over to diesel generators. “To put all that engineering in place, to justify it, you need scale.”

Scale is everything, and many promising aquaculture start-ups have failed because they couldn’t invest enough in the research, consents and infrastructure to grow fast, says Alfaro. At current levels of government investment—Ocean Beach, for instance, has not yet received any public support—she and Wolfgram don’t think New Zealand will get anywhere near the $3 billion aquaculture goal.

[Chapter Break]

Land-farmed fish spend their lives in captivity, and never know the open ocean. Is it any more cruel keeping a fish in a tank than it is keeping sheep in a paddock? “People seem to think fish are quite stupid animals, but the scientific evidence indicates that they’re actually quite smart,” says University of Auckland marine scientist Andrew Jeffs. “They’ve got memories, they form complex social groups, they can recognise each other.”

New Zealand has no specific code of welfare for fish, but aquaculture farms must abide by other animal-welfare rules that govern how they’re slaughtered or transported. The consumption of animals always involves a degree of suffering, Jeffs says—“I don’t say that justifies it.” Still, he thinks farmed kingfish, whitebait and pāua are probably relatively happy in confinement.

Pāua, for all their beauty, are basically snails. “The animal just wants great food, clean water and a clean environment,” says Wolfgram. “The fact that it’s in a fibre-glass tank? I don’t know if they know. Certainly, if it was that foreign and alien, they wouldn’t survive a month.” Kingfish and whitebait are schooling animals, happiest in a crowd. In tanks, they have their social and nutritional needs met. “In the natural environment, most fish are pretty much starving, so finding a meal is really a major focus of their existence,” says Jeffs.

Do they not get bored swimming in circles all day, though? It’s hard to be sure, but Setiawan doesn’t think so. One of his master’s students did an experiment putting Lego in the tanks to see how the fish reacted—perhaps they would play or interact with it in some way, as captive octopuses sometimes will. (Tank enrichment is an old idea: 2000 years ago, the Roman writer Columella advised placing seaweed-covered rocks in farmed fishponds, “so that, though they are prisoners, the fish may feel their captivity as little as possible”.) But the kingfish weren’t interested, Setiawan says. “They really didn’t care about the Lego. They just swam around it.”

Humans have domesticated remarkably few animals—we don’t farm lemurs or armadillos, for instance. NIWA chose to breed and study just kingfish and hāpuku because they seemed most likely to succeed commercially.

Land-farmed fish are also much better off than their wild-caught cousins, Jeffs reckons. While aquaculture scientists’ experiments are governed by strict research ethics requirements, and fish farms must obey the Animal Welfare Act, Jeffs points out that recreational and commercial fishers are free to kill fish however they like: crush them in a trawl net, fight them on a line, pose with them at length for photos, or leave them to suffocate on a deck or dock. “That’s a far more painful way of treating animals than nurturing them in a tank and feeding them on good food and dispatching them in a humane way.”

[Chapter Break]

Even if the fish are as happy as Larry, might domesticating these taonga species change what they mean to us? Fish have been called “the last wild food”. How does our relationship with kai change when it’s tamed?

Andrea Alfaro hopes that making farmed pāua widely available will help to embed it in our national consciousness and cuisine. For many Māori though, pāua’s significance has never diminished, even as the bigger, older individuals have vanished from the shallows all around our coasts.

The day before my visit to Ocean Beach, Brendan Flack (Ngāi Tahu) met Alfaro there to share knowledge about pāua. Flack’s hapū, Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, hopes to start their own hatchery to replenish their local taiāpure, or protected area—growing the pāua up to a certain age, then releasing them for eventual customary harvest. It’s part of a multipronged plan to restore customary access to the taonga.

Flack sees many advantages in pāua aquaculture—especially if it ends up reducing demand on the wild stocks. Still, he doesn’t think he would serve the farmed stuff from Bluff to guests at the marae.

Pāua tastes better—or at least it means more—if you collect it yourself.

“It’s not necessarily the eating of it. It’s about the activity of gathering. It’s about the activity of sharing. And it’s also about the memories that are generated by the opportunity for the whole family to be involved in gathering.”

Roger Pikia, on the other hand, is quite happy to put farmed whitebait on his wharenui tables. “In fact we’re serving it up this weekend at the kaumātua Christmas function—they’ll tell us whether it’s any good!” He reckons the farmed fish are even tastier than the wild ones—less gritty, because they’re purged of any silt or sand before being frozen, plus they never sit around in a lukewarm bucket.

Paul Decker insists Manāki does not aim to replace the recreational and customary whitebait fisheries. “The wild fishery is a wonderful thing—all our children should have that cultural experience.” The company will, however, compete with commercial whitebait harvesters—who within the fishing season face no catch limits, even though most whitebait species are endangered.

“My goal would be for every New Zealander to have a chance to have sustainably farmed whitebait, so they have no need to buy from people exploiting the wild catch,” says Meares. That may not be how it plays out: a 2019 study of global aquaculture found that it rarely shifts pressure off wild stocks on its own, and may even help to increase appetites for fish products—though it can also help to meet that demand.

It’s also possible that one day, farmed versions of pāua, hāpuku, kingfish or whitebait might be the only kind we can get. Many abalone fisheries overseas have collapsed—in California, the white abalone is almost extinct, its numbers plummeting from millions in the 1970s to fewer than 2000 today.

Similarly, pāua and hāpuku were once ubiquitous and easy to catch. The giant kōkopu is listed internationally as “vulnerable and decreasing”, and all whitebait species are predicted to be extinct in the wild by 2034. According to Decker, there are more adult female giant kōkopu in a couple of sheds in Warkworth than in all the streams and rivers of New Zealand.

At Ocean Beach, after visiting the pāua and whitebait farms, I look out the rain-splattered windows of a building Wolfgram hopes to turn into a restaurant serving the site’s seafood. Outside, Foveaux Strait hurls itself onto the bay’s treacherous rocks. For now, at least, there are probably a few hardy wild pāua clinging to some of them, their outer shells a dull grey, not fluorescent blue. And a few dozen kilometres along the coast, the last of the season’s wild whitebait will be wriggling up the Mataura River, running the gauntlet of whitebaiters, sediment-laden waters and brown trout.

A mighty hāpuku circles the tank at NIWA’s Northland Aquaculture Centre in Ruakaka, Northland. “From an aquacultural point of view, you want to pick a few key species that have the legs”—or perhaps the fins—“to make a go of it,” says NIWA’s chief scientist for aquaculture Andrew Forsythe. 

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