Plant & Food’s new Nelson Research Centre. Picture: Plant & Food Research

Plant & Food’s new research centre in Nelson has set the Crown Research Institute up to be “the ideas factory’’ for one of New Zealand’s leading industries.

This was the message from Environment Minister and Nelson MP Nick Smith when he officially opened the $9 million centre at Port Nelson last month.

The new building, which adjoins the hatchery opened in 2014 where thousands of snapper, trevally, flounder and now blue cod are bred and studied, houses 50 scientists and support staff.

Purpose-built by Port Nelson Ltd and designed by Jerram Tocker Barron Architects, it includes laboratories, offices, a conference room and a flow tank area for testing underwater gear such as the Precision Seafood Harvesting (PSH) system Plant & Food has developed in a $48 million project.

It all sits right beside the Talley’s Nelson wharves and factory and just across the marina channel from the inshore fleet’s berths.

Opening it at a function attended by a large gathering, Smith said the fishing industry contributed $2 billion a year to the economy, and employed 40,000 people.

“This investment in research and technology is about not only protecting that employment and that base, but looking where there is opportunity into the future.”

He said New Zealand was “a bit of a pipsqueak’’ in the world economy, but its oceans gave it the fourth largest Exclusive Economic Zone.

“We are global players when it comes to the ocean and the fisheries space.” The seafood industry, particularly aquaculture, had some of New Zealand’s biggest growth opportunities over the next 25 years if the science and sustainability were properly developed and managed.

The new centre was “a statement of confidence in New Zealand’s marine industries and the role that science needs to play in the future of the fisheries”, Smith said.

Plant & Food Research’s Nelson seafood centre has grown from a handful of DSIR scientists in the 1980s into two large science groups, one working on seafood production and the other on marine products and processing.

Until now most of the scientists have been based in an old and decaying multi-storey building on the Nelson waterfront opposite the harbour entrance.

Alastair Jerrett leads the seafood production group, which until now has been split between the old building and the new hatchery, several kilometres distant. Sue Marshall’s marine products and processing group has been based at the old building, and also has a team in Auckland working on food safety.

The scientific disciplines across both groups include physiology, biology, bioengineering, breeding, genetics, biochemistry and microbiology.

The overall focus is maximising value from New Zealand’s seafood resources. Jerrett’s team works on harvesting, handling and production technologies – it came up with PSH - and fish physiology and behaviour. Marshall’s team focusses on high-value products from marine resources, industrial-scale processing, and understanding and managing food safety and shelf life.

Among other things it has discovered how to turn hoki skins into cosmetic products, and nano-fibres used in filtering systems.

Between them the two groups are helping to steer the seafood industry towards new ways to both increase production and add value to the resource that’s already here.

The overall head, General Manager Science, Seafood Technologies, Helen Mussely, said the division was to some extent arbitrary, with significant collaboration.

“We try to find projects and programmes where we can use skills and expertise from both groups, and work together.

“You’ve got commercial clients who might have different research needs to the more fundamental science, and you don’t want to drop fundamental research – it’s that work that leads to discoveries that can then support industry further down the track. We do balance that through the different programmes.”

MBIE-based funding for the Export Marine Products programme was supplemented with funding from a number of companies which in turn got access to all the basic research, plus research specific to their needs. PSH was co-funded by MPI and industry.

There was also internal funding through the overall Plant & Food budget.

“Often that is used for some of the stretchier, higher-risk, more fundamental research that might develop something that can then be applied to industry,” Mussely said.

“It’s a balance of applied and fundamental research, but it’s fair to say that we’re more at the applied end, working with industry, aquaculture, and that sort of thing.”

She said the old building had “treated the group well’’ but was no longer fit for purpose.

“The new building has been designed for us and the work we do. It’s purpose-built and has what we need to continue with our current programmes and also future research programmes.”

One of the best things was that it would bring the entire team together  on one spacious, open-plan site, giving easy access to the work spaces of others and “allowing those tea-room and corridor discussions where you can chew things over”.

“We’re looking forward to being able to bring the people that we work with - funders, industry, clients, colleagues – on site and have spaces for meetings, seminars and workshops that we can feel good about.”

The new centre and the hatchery together include eight laboratories and finfish tanks totalling 325,000 litres.

Mussely said the the new building showed how committed Plant & Food was to the seafood industry, and how much the Nelson work had grown.

“Now we’re at a point where we don’t have to necessarily keep growing in terms of numbers – we’ve got a good spread of disciplines and people – we’re at a good point in terms of capability where we can get our teeth into the continuation of research,” she said.

The scientists were excited about the future.

“There’s all sorts of opportunities in the aquaculture space for finfish, not just the production and the biology side of things, but designing aquaculture systems for New Zealand that can enable the industry to move ahead.

“PSH has been great but there are always more things that we can look at.

“Our knowledge of our marine resources and what we can do with them is growing all the time and there is more and more interest in what we can do with the bits of the fish that in the past have been considered waste, and are now showing the potential of being the basis for new industries.”

The task was to make improvements to how fish were caught and how they were grown, and what to do with them once they were caught or grown.

“There’s some big gains to be made. It’s wider than just the fishing or aquaculture industry now.”

Port Nelson Ltd Chief Executive Martin Byrne said the project was a joint initiative that the port company hoped would grow into a larger seafood research precinct in the same area.

“There’s a good opportunity to turn it into something really meaningful for the seafood industry.”