With each of the 60-or-so shovelfuls, community pride grew stronger in Opotiki.
This was no ordinary sod turning.
“Our town has been waiting a long time for this,” said Whakatohea CEO Dickie Farrar, after the official ceremony to kick-off construction on the town’s first mussel processing factory.
“Minister Shane Jones and our Chair Robert Edwards officially turned the sod, but then other people started stepping forward to pick up the shovel and turn their own sod.
“In the end, there was probably around 60 people who picked up that shovel, who feel like they’re a part of this because this whole venture is being driven by Iwi and by the community.”
“It was a pinch yourself moment.”
It was a moment that’s been over 20 years in the making and marks a significant step in the movement to revitalise the local community through investment in aquaculture.
“This is an aspiration started over 20 years ago by our Kaumātua, coming into fruition.
“I was born here and raised here. I’ve seen all the loss.
“In the ‘70s we were a vibrant town with booming industries, but when everything got centralised, they pulled the bones out of our community. We had a dairy factory and a shoe factory, but they all left. A lot of our people never wanted to leave the community, but could not afford to stay.
“We’ve seen aquaculture as a way to revitalise ourselves as a region and as a community.”
“It started with a dream to farm the waters in our own back yard. As a tribe we created an aquaculture strategy that had three domains: to develop our water space, to build a mussel processing factory and develop the harbour entrance.”
That dream is now becoming a reality with a $19.85 million Provincial Growth Fund investment to build the factory, and $79.4 million to redevelop the harbour entrance announced by Regional Economic Development Minster Shane Jones earlier this year.
“Building a new harbour to support the growth of aquaculture is the biggest transformational investment the Provincial Growth Fund has made to date,” Minister Jones said.
“We recognise that aquaculture provides one of the biggest opportunities for the Eastern Bay of Plenty to transform its economy.”
Importantly, it will also mean Whakatohea can relocate their mussel farming operation, Open Ocean, from Whakatane to their home port in Opotiki.
“We have 15 people in our farming team and that is set to grow over the coming years,” said Open Ocean Chief Executive Peter Vitasovich.
“We operate two vessels out of Whakatane because the Opotiki harbour currently does not allow for safe passage for our vessels and people. The new Opotiki harbour entrance will provide the safe passage.
“The cCommercial development of the marine farm began in 2014 and we currently have 186 lines in the water, and planning is underway for the installation of another 148 lines in 2020/21.
“That will see approximately 50% of our 3,800 hectare site developed, which will help support the processing factory which will create many employment opportunities.”
And that gets to the heart of this project.
“This project has the support of the whole community and everyone, Maori and Pakeha have joined together to turn a concept into a realty,” Peter said.
“It really highlights the importance of aquaculture in regional towns.”
And it is a source of pride for Dickie and Whakatohea who’ve been working for decades to create a town their people can come home to.
“We’re working side by side with partners on a wide range of things to enhance what is required to rebuild our town and our community,” she said.
“We’re training local kids and supporting them to study and giving them opportunities to go and learn knew skill sets so that they can bring that knowledge back to work here and share their knowledge with others. We’re providing social services and we’re looking at housing strategies now to house people when they return.
“We’re not quite there yet, but it’s time to start letting people know. It’s almost time to come home.”