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$6m Exmouth fish farm under way

WORK on Western Australia’s largest fish farming project got under way this month at Exmouth.

Perth company Marine Farms plans to invest up to $6 million in its mahi-mahi project, which is expected to generate annual production worth about $16 million when it reaches full capacity.

This is more than double the current value of aquaculture production in WA, which is dominated by cottage industries such as yabbies and marron, and by mussel farms.

While many groups have aspired to establish new commercial ventures farming species such as abalone and prawns, few have made progress.

Marine Farms has a cautious long-term development plan, starting with the construction over the next three months of a 250-tonnes-a-year production facility.

This would require an initial investment of about $3 million, with most of the money coming from Perth business executive Georges Atzenhoffer.

The company also obtained a $250,000 AusIndustry grant to support its early research.

Marine Farms director Steve Nel said the company expected to be selling mahi-mahi in 12 months and would use this cash flow to help fund the phased expansion of its facilities over several years.

The compay may also raise additional funds from investors.

The ultimate size of the project was not finalised but Mr Nel said he would be “very disappointed if it was anything less than 2,000 tonnes”.

He expected significant economies of scale, with phased expansion of the project costing a lot less than the initial start-up costs.

At full production, the company could employ up to 50 staff.

The project involves construction of a hatchery and above-ground grow-out tanks on the coast, six kilometres south of Exmouth.

The location almost brought the project undone, when Western Power refused to supply power.

However, that decision was reversed in March following intervention by Gascoyne Minister Tom Stephens.

The use of tanks contrasts with the use of sea cages for other fish farming ventures, such as the large tuna farms at Port Lincoln, salmon farms in Tasmania and the small barramundi farm at Lake Argyle.

Mr Nel, who has been researching mahi-mahi for 20 years and working on the Marine Farms project for three years, said the species was ideal for aquaculture.

They spawn every second day throughout the year and can grow from an egg to market size (5kg) within eight months.

He said Marine Farms would operate more like a fish factory than a farm, with a constant supply throughout the year and the ability to “manufacture to order”.

The project posed a low environmental risk, since mahi-mahi were very efficient feeders.

“They convert feed to flesh significantly more efficiently than any other species that is farmed,” he said.

Due to the onshore tank technology, a benign discharge was produced.

Mr Nel said Marine Farms would assess opportunities to license its technology for offshore producers.

“We are the best at this in the world,” he said.

The species, also known as Dolphin fish, is rarely seen in Perth restaurants but Mr Nel said it was becoming more common in Sydney and, to a lesser extent, in Melbourne.

Once production volumes increase, Mr Nel expects about three quarters of all sales will be in international export markets.

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