Andy Elliot was a marine biologist working his way around the country helping paua farmers when he settled in Nelson.
Here he would go on to help domesticate the Greenshell mussel, establish the flat oyster industry, and become the aquaculture industry’s first Nuffield scholar.
But first he had to decorate his new home with partner Bec.
“One day we were looking for art to hang in our new house and Bec found a painting that she loved,” Andy said.
“It was $400.
“I said: ‘I could paint that’.”
“I bought a $5 canvas, some paints and a $1 brush from The Warehouse and created my first painting one evening,” he said.
“Bec liked it enough to put it on the wall and it gave me some confidence.”
After spending his days working in wet labs at the Cawthron Aquaculture Park, Andy would come home and paint in the evening as a release.
“You’ve got to have creativity in your life. It’s very important,” he said. He started putting his acrylic landscapes up for auction on Trade Me and he watched on as they began to sell for upwards of $1000. Soon he was supplying a dozen galleries around the country. But it was never about the money.
For Andy, it was a chance to revisit a subject he dropped when he was forced to choose between science and art.
“My family has owned a piece of land down at Stewart Island for 80 years and I grew up having all my family holidays down there. I spent my days exploring rock pools, fishing, snorkelling and it just grew a love for the sea,” he said.
“When I was 10, someone explained to me the role of a marine biologist and from that point on, I was fixated on one day becoming one.
“My first speed wobble was realising that I had to drop all creative subjects like art, for chemistry and physics.”
After completing post-graduate studies in marine science, Andy got his first taste of the aquaculture industry helping maximise feed and growth efficiencies for a paua higher value species,” he said.
He then worked as a consultant, sharing his knowledge with various paua farmers around the country, before settling in Nelson and turning his microscope on mussels.
“I worked with Cawthron as a senior technician for a couple of years in the early days of their Cultured Shellfish Programme. I then took a job with the family-owned Maori business, Wakatu Incorporation and its food and drinks business, Kono, running a project focussed on domesticating the Greenshell mussel,” he said.
“My sole job was to produce mussel spat. Within three years we ran a pilot scale where we were producing enough spat to seed 1500 tonnes of finished product.
“We set up a hatchery and established families, and many of the things we started in those early days have now been commercialised by SPATnz.”
As well as establishing the systems and science, Andy was also heavily involved in the original Primary Growth Partnership application that brought SPATnz to life.
“At the time, Wakatu, as well as Sealord, Marlborough Mussels and Sanford were all working on Greenshell mussell spat production programmes, so we decided to pool our resources and our knowledge and build the one project, and that’s how SPATnz was formed,” he said.
“At about the same time, we were also developing projects around the flat and Pacific oysters and I was given a choice to work with SPATnz or develop businesses around the oysters. I chose oysters.
“I’d been working on mussels for about a decade by that point and I felt like we’d cracked the nut.
“You want to have a challenge in life.”
“I was excited about the prospects of developing new businesses and a new industry.”
Andy’s challenge was to apply the lessons from mussels to a new, higher value species while utilising the same farming infrastructure.
“We wanted to create some more value from our existing water space and the only way you can do that is to grow more, or diversify into other higher value species,” he said.
“It was really about how do we apply what we’ve learned through the mussel development phase and apply that to other species.
“We built a specialist hatchery at Cawthron, and started settling oysters directly onto rope and growing them out to just before market size. We were using the longline infrastructure we grew mussels on and plugging in a new species.”
The result was the Kiwa – an oyster that was marketed to premium restaurants in New Zealand and internationally, and was praised by US chefs as the missing link of the oyster world for its vibrant and fresh flavour.
With a fantastic product, a strong branding story and growing market awareness, all signs were pointing up – until Bonamia ostreae struck. The parasite was first found in Marlborough in 2015 and then two years later found on farms off Stewart Island.
The Ministry for Primary Industries moved to protect the wild populations by ordering the removal of flat oyster farms from Nelson, Marlborough Sounds and Stewart Island – effectively closing down the burgeoning industry. For Andy, who had spent years learning to nurture and promote the species, the decision hit him hard.
“It was absolutely gutting. All the time, energy, thoughts and passion that went into all those farms around the country has been wasted. And that knowledge and expertise will be difficult to replace,” he said.
“I believe as an industry, we were just on the edge of actually cracking it. We were learning how to farm and breed around Bonamia ostreae and we were getting the results to show that we were on the right track.”
Regrets remain, but more about the process rather than the result.
“When I look at it now, I think how could we have got a better outcome as an industry. I think the answer comes back to how authorities, industry and science all interacted,” he said.
“Of course I’m sad about what happened with the oysters, but biosecurity is not going away and how the aquaculture industry responds to it is going to be our biggest challenge going forward.”
It is this ability to take an industry wide approach to his work that saw Andy recognised with a prestigious Nuffield Scholarship which fast-tracks the development of emerging leaders in the agri-food sector.
There have been 140 New Zealand recipients in the awards’ history – but Andy is the first from the aquaculture sector.
In March 2018 he joins 60 scholars from around the world for an initial conference in the Netherlands, before embarking on a six-week study tour across four continents with a smaller group, and a final phase of a 10 week individual travel and research programme.
Andy said it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take time away from his day-to-day work, and learn about global farming practices and gain new insights and ideas to bring back to New Zealand.
“In my role with Wakatu, I’m firmly focused on exploring future opportunities for Kono, including the potential to connect directly with our customers and become providers of nutritional solutions and food ingredients, in addition to being a supplier of food products,” Andy said. “The Nuffield Scholarship is a chance to take a step back from that and examine what I do in my role, what Wakatu does in our industry and what New Zealand does in a global context.
“We’re part of a global network but I don’t think we’re utilising that fully. “Aquaculture is actually a lot like other primary industries – we have similar challenges: how do we deal with biosecurity, threats from disease, and how do we extract maximum value from what we produce? How do we connect better with customers and markets? How do we produce what customers want, rather than producing something and then finding a market for it?
“If you take away the nuts and bolts of growing something and just focus on the two bookends of selective breeding and getting as close to customers as possible, I think that’s where the true value for any industry lies.”
The art of it comes in recognising the value, and bringing it back for the betterment of the industry, our communities and New Zealand.