18/12/2020 - 10:00

Leeuwin Coast muscles in on shellfish industry

18/12/2020 - 10:00

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Leeuwin Coast has invested in new technologies in its quest to become a large and sustainable player in the Australian shellfish industry.

Leeuwin Coast muscles in on shellfish industry
Justin Welsh is hoping the market for akoya oysters will grow. Photo: Leeuwin Coast

Albany’s Oyster Bay has taken on a new look since Andrew Forrest’s Harvest Road Group launched its Leeuwin Coast seafood brand in August.

The traditional-style oyster beds have been replaced by floating black baskets as part of Leeuwin Coast’s plan to become one of the largest seafood players in Australia.

Developed in New Zealand, the FlipFarm floating baskets were installed last month.

Harvest Road Group aquaculture general manager Justin Welsh said Leeuwin Coast was the first to use the technology in Western Australia.

It involves a series of baskets connected by a rope that float on the surface of the water.

Mr Welsh said the new technology was less disruptive to sea life than traditional oyster farming methods.

“The old system was a fixed-pole infrastructure [system]; it relied on wood that degrades quickly and needs to be changed over quite regularly, whereas the new system has a very small … anchor point in the seabed and floats,” Mr Welsh told Business News.

“Because it’s floating, it’s really dynamic and it moves over the grass so there is no shading to any one spot, and you get really good seagrass recovery and health underneath the oyster lines.”

The baskets can be detached and rotated.

“This new oyster gear means we can automate the way we handle the oysters; we harvest them, we flip the baskets and prevent falling,” Mr Welsh said.

“That really helps bring the industry into the future and helps us achieve the production targets we are facing.”

He said the rest of the industry was slowly transitioning to using new farming technologies, but the equipment was expensive.

“We are quite fortunate in that most of the leases we are at aren’t established, so we can start with a blank canvas and really look to the future to build the longest lasting and best gear we can,” Mr Welsh said.

The FlipFarm system was developed in New Zealand, and has been used in Wairangi Bay in the Marlborough Sounds.

Leeuwin Coast was launched in August after Harvest Road established an oyster nursery in Carnarvon and recently purchased a number of WA seafood businesses, including Cockburn-based Blue Lagoon Mussels and Albany’s Great Southern Shellfish.

Earlier this year, it purchased Albany-based Ocean Foods International, which was one of the only suppliers of WA oysters to the local markets.

“What that gave us was a really strong foundation of both capability and water to farm in WA, so we could establish a proper commercial production volume out of a sustainable aquaculture business,” Mr Welsh said.

Ambitions

Harvest Road has big plans for Leeuwin Coast.

Mr Welsh said the company was hoping to ramp-up production to 18 million rock oysters, 20 million pieces of akoya oyster, and as many mussels as Western Australians wanted to eat annually.

“We are going to be increasing our production for the next four years before we get to our peak capacity, so that’s a really big challenge for us,” he said.

“The scale we are chasing has never before been done in WA, and it will position us as one of the biggest shellfish companies in Australia.”

The akoya oyster is one part of Leeuwin Coast’s plan.

The oyster is from Japan, where it is usually grown until it is five or six years old and then harvested for its pearl.

Traditionally, harvesting the akoya meat is not financially viable.

However, Leeuwin Coast came up with a new way to grow the shellfish and harvest its meat commercially.

 “Through a bit of innovation and collaboration with the local hatchery, and other shellfish scientists, we have actually come up with a way of producing them in a very different way,” Mr Welsh said.

“We harvest them at about one year old, and instead of growing them out to about four of five years in pearl panels, we actually grow them similar to a mussel on long lines.

“It means the yields we get are very high for our water and we can grow them out in the oceanic sites, so that helps to deliver that really crisp and salty flavour profile.”

Mr Welsh is hoping to grow the market for akoya oysters, a product rarely heard of in Australia until recently.

So far, around 13 restaurants in WA are selling the new seafood delicacy, including Nobu, Fleur and Voyager Estate.

“Our partnership model with a few amazing restaurants around WA has really helped, and the uptake has been fantastic,” he said.

“Customer feedback has been great, everybody is really enjoying the unique flavour profiles that the akoya delivers.”

Business News was recently hosted by Taste Great Southern on a tour of the region.

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