Jonathan Large, Marine Farming Association President, talks through how the mussel industry in the Top of the South responded to the COVID-19 lockdown
Q) Was continued GSM production through the lockdown a certainty from the start?
A) Not at all. Things happened very quickly and the lockdown came as a bit of a shock to us all. It took some good work by MPI and AQNZ to ensure that aquaculture was on the list of essential services and able to operate through Level 4.
Q) Did that come with a lot of additional requirements?
A) Yes once we’d confirmed our place on the essential services list, we then had to ensure all staff and their families were kept safe. This required rapid development of safe work protocols and there was a lot of discussion within the industry about how to best do this. Seafood NZ helped immensely by sharing the guidance they developed.
Q) There were some innovative approaches like the guys taking their wives out on boats checking farms to maintain their bubbles – were there others?
A) That was one good example. Mussel farming companies took a number of different approaches. Some made crews a bubble; others took a very staunch approach on implementing controls; some reverted to day shifts on vessels to ensure social distancing.
Q) Any issues arising?
A) We had feedback from MPI that the industry did a really good job of developing and implementing safe work protocols, with a few spot audits confirming this. There was a lot at stake and we didn’t want to be the industry responsible for a new Covid cluster. We had to get this right to protect our people and their jobs.
Q) How much was production impacted by the lockdown?
A) Well it coincided with an excellent growing season in the Top of the South but production was down. Some boats couldn’t maintain the necessary spacing so remained tied up. Some staff chose not to work; others had to stand down because of age or pre-existing conditions. Processing facilities had to separate staff so volume was reduced. This was offset by the initial hit as restaurants, cruise ships and events in our major markets closed down.
Q) What was the feedback from staff?
A) A majority of us chose to or were able to work. It was generally recognised we were privileged to still have employment. Some companies requested staff just travel to and from work – no diversions – and the signs were this was complied with.
Q) What does the future hold for the GSM industry?
A) We are in a challenging phase now. The United States, in particular, is a big market for frozen half shell – and that’s going to take time to recover. That said, aquaculture is very well positioned to help bring the New Zealand economy out of recession; people everywhere still need to eat and we produce nutritious food at very reasonable prices.
Q) What’s needed to increase our contribution to that economic recovery?
A) Well Government’s own aquaculture strategy sees us growing to $3b by 2035. Deputy PM Winston Peters is now talking up what open ocean king salmon can contribute as a species by way of jobs and exports. GSM production is gearing up in the Top of the South, Bay of Plenty and Coromandel. Government needs to look at the regulatory regimes and clear the way for some of the most environmentally sustainable farming on the planet.