We’re a 10 minute boat ride from Wainui.
“Bout the same again” from the headland that separates the harbour from the Southern Pacific Ocean, reckons Duncan Bates as he steps onto the Akaroa Salmon farm that he and his father Tom have built from scratch over three decades.
It’s come over dark. A southerly has blown up from nowhere sending whitecaps sloshing through a dozen or so pens of Chinook salmon. The hills climbing hundreds of metres above the teal-blue waters give some
shelter but still, it feels rugged, exposed.
“Yeah, how lucky am I!” says Duncan, his smile as honest and rugged as those hills.
“The evolution of Akaroa Salmon hasn’t been some glorious plan.
“It’s a story about survival.”
It’s a story that began nearly three decades ago after Tom went on a diving trip.
“I went diving down off Southland and met a fisherman who took me over to Stewart Island to see a pen of salmon they had – and that was it. I thought that will work in Akaroa. We had wild salmon in the harbour so I knew the water must be plenty suitable for salmon,” he said.
“Plus I could see that it was doable. We come from farming stock and had an understanding of how to care for animals and I knew it would require plenty of lateral thinking which both Duncan and I had.”
To get the project off the ground, Tom liaised with the local community to earn public support and with the then Akaroa Council to qualify for an experimental licence,while Duncan took a job on the Stewart Island farm to learn the craft of raising salmon.
Then together, they built the first pens by hand on the beach and with the help of local fishermen, they towed it out into the Akaroa Harbour.
“We didn’t even have a dinghy when we started,” Tom said.
In nearly three decades on these waters they’ve survived severe storms, market crises, supply shortages and deliberate acts of sabotage.
“This is the reality of salmon farming – there’s no romanticism about it,” Duncan said.
“It’s a primary industry and you can take some pretty big hits. That’s farming.
“You’ve got to be willing to try new things and man you need to learn from your mistakes because there’s plenty of mistakes along the way when you’re learning to farm a new animal.
“But if you’re going to start something – then you’re going to finish it.”
For Duncan, this started when he was 24, single, and playing hooker for the Banks Peninsula rugby team.
“We started with one raft and one cage,” he said.
“We were gifted 10,000 smolt from NZ Salmon Company and I would drive to the top of the hill, park up, walk down the hill, row out to the farm, feed the fish by hand, walk back up the hill, and do it again the next day.”
Of the 10,000 smolt, half were males and about 4,000 of the remaining thrived through to harvest.
“Oh yeah, you get a buzz seeing the idea and hard work coming off,” he said.
“I can remember the first time we ate some, Dad and I both looked at each other and thought ‘Wow! This tastes pretty good, we might be onto something.’
Consumers in America agreed. The lot were processed in Akaroa and sold for $US20/kg when the NZ dollar was at 50c. Any salmon farmer today will tell you that’s an exceptional return.
“We thought we were going to make a fortune,” Duncan said.
But this is a primary industry.
“There were new farming companies starting up and a lot of salmon being produced with no established markets and our market imploded and the price dropped down to $7/kg,” Tom said.
Suddenly they had 40 tonnes of salmon they had to find a new market for.
“Mum and Dad jumped in the car and literally started driving around the country going into hotels and restaurants saying ‘we can supply you fresh salmon 12 months of the year – put it on the menu,” Duncan said.
“And I can remember walking in through the foyer of the Park Royal Hotel in Christchurch with a bin of fish and asking ‘where is the kitchen?’.
“I used to get up about 3am and shoot down to the factory and get 6 bins of ice, drive to Wainui, jump in the boat, harvest whatever we needed and bring them back to the factory in town.
Mum and Dad would be there and Dad’s sister and whoever was available and we’d package up the fish and send it on its way.”
In the 28 years since, Akaroa has opened a specialised processing plant, invested in a hatchery and grown to produce over 200 tonnes per year. However their sales model remains essentially the same with the vast majority of their product being sold direct to domestic food service providers.
“What we essentially did was kick start the domestic market for salmon,” Tom said.
“Back then it wasn’t on any menus and it wasn’t part of the regular Kiwi diet.
“I travelled all over the countryside and approached young chefs directly, in their kitchens, introduced them to the product and convinced them to put it on their menus.
“(Celebrity chef) Simon Gault had a restaurant in the Viaduct Basin in those days and I went up to him during service and said ‘I’m sorry to come at a busy time, but I think you should try my salmon’.
“He said:‘send me up a bin, and if it’s good I’ll keep it, and if not I’ll send it back the next day’.
“We’ve been mates ever since and he’s been a wonderful advocate for Akaroa Salmon.”
These days, Tom is retired after stepping back from the business in 2012 but he still finds it greatly satisfying to look at the farm and think back to what he helped start all those years ago.
“It was a real family do,” he said.
“We worked shoulder to shoulder growing the business. Duncan spent more time on the farm and I spent more time building the market.
“Knowledge was short at times, and money was even shorter.
“We did it tough for many years, but when your whole financial security is on the line, and you believe in what you’re doing and you keep at it, then sooner or later it’s going to work.
“I’m very proud to look back and see what we’ve built – and I’m also very grateful for all the help and support we’ve had along the way.”
And respecting and continually earning this community support remains a cornerstone of Akaroa’s culture.
“Hiring local people, using local suppliers, supporting local causes – that’s all important stuff,” Duncan said.
“I might be able to get someone to cart my feed for cheaper. But I’ve never tried. I’ve never made the call because I choose to use my local transport company because that’s important to me.”
Looking after their backyard is just as important.
“Akaroa Harbour is an important place for a lot of people not just us,” Duncan said.
“We need to be 100 per cent aware of that and give it the respect it’s due.
“All the guys working on the farm are locals and their families are attached to the harbour and a lot of other people live by and work on the harbour too.
“So it’s important that we fit into that environment without being seen to dominate.”
For Duncan, that means continuing to support the local community that has supported him for nearly three decades.
And being grateful.
“At the start I just thought it was a good idea,” he said.
“I thought ‘we can do that in Akaroa’.
“Nearly 30 years later I look back and think, ‘Yeah, how lucky am I!”