Technololgy developed in Marlborough is changing the way oyster farmers across the world grow and harvest the sought after shellfish.
Oyster farmers Aaron and Debbie Pannell started their business, Marlborough Oysters, in 2011 with a farm in Croisilles Harbour, at the top of the South Island.
In the early days of the business, the couple used floating plastic mesh bags to grow their oysters, a system which Aaron Pannell said worked well.
“Or at least it did until demand went through the roof. That meant more farms, more gear and more staff.”
Within a few years, Marlborough Oysters had become New Zealand’s largest grower of intermediate size oysters, producing 15 million shellfish each year.
But scaling up production came with a lot of challenges, Pannell said.
“Quality and efficiency are the keys to sustainable profit in aquaculture. Often they’re considered mutually incompatible.
“I’m a big believer there are no shortcuts to quality but when you’re farming millions of oysters, sometimes you need shortcuts.”
While building the business, Pannell continued to experiment with ways to improve its processes and built what he said was an incredibly efficient operation.
”But even so, as every oyster farmer will tell you, there are some days when you feel like packing it all in, some months when you think, ‘what am I doing with my life?’
“And [there are] some years you would rather forget. For me, 2016 was a year from hell.”
Although the business was booming, with 25 million oysters on farm, the Pannells were about to be “badly burned” for scaling up too quickly.
An oyster virus struck first, followed by a plague of flatworms which wiped out more than half of the farm’s stock.
Biofouling did more damage to the remaining oysters, and a three-day storm caused further havoc.
“It took us two weeks to get back on our feet and it cost us $1.5 million in lost revenue,” Pannell said.
On top of the challenges Mother Nature sent their way, the business was short-staffed, and Pannell found himself working 12-hour days, six days a week.
“Something had to give. Or something had to change.”
Pannell, who has more than 25 years experience in marine farming, decided to take the matter into his own hands and design harvesting equipment that would replace the older ways of doing things.
A key problem was the use of webbing lanyards to attach lines to the oyster growing bags. Due to the constant movement of the bags in the water, the equipment wore out faster than it could be repaired and the farm was losing thousands of bags as a result.
“It got to a point where a couple of staff were working full time on repairing and maintaining the gear but we still couldn’t keep up.
“So I started playing around with a few different ideas for containers and baskets.”
Pannell’s eureka moment came after the couple bought a small company in a nearby bay and were left with half a dozen rigid hexagonal oyster baskets.
After trying an assortment of different clips to attach the Hexcyl baskets to the line, Pannel decided to thread a rope through the middle of the baskets, put some oysters out and “see what happened”.
”When I came back a couple of weeks later and lifted the line up, all the baskets flipped over automatically so their floats were down.
“When I lowered the line they rested on the floats again. Even better, the oysters were in premium condition. That was the eureka moment, when I realized the baskets could rotate individually.
“That moment not only changed my life but also changed the oyster farming industry.”
By being able to flip the baskets on a line, the need to constantly turn the mesh bags was eliminated.
With 40,000 bags needing to be sorted every couple of months, flipping them all could take a week under the old system. Using the baskets on the line, the job could be done in just a few hours.
After the handling machinery and system were fine-tuend, Marlborough Oysters shifted its whole operation from bags to baskets.
The system, christened FlipFarm, was more efficient and easier to operate, and contributed to the eradication of predatory flatworms on the farm.
“Even better, the oyster condition and quality improved dramatically and the annual mortality rate was reduced by 66 per cent,” Pannell said.
“It has reduced our workload significantly and made it much easier to find suitable staff. It has also changed the demographic of the staff we can employ.
“The beauty of the FlipFarm system is it opens doors for people who might not have considered oyster farming before because it was too physically demanding. The machinery is safe and easy to operate and it makes life easier for people working in the industry, which is very satisfying.”
Since its official launch two years ago, FlipFarm technology has been adopted by more than 70 oyster farmers in 12 countries and was recently awarded the aquaculture innovation award at the Global Seafood Alliance Awards.
The award recognises individuals and companies finding new solutions to the key challenges facing aquaculture.
The recent accolade comes after FlipFarm Systems was named the 2021 Future Development Innovation Award winner by Seafood New Zealand, and received an award from Good Design Australia earlier this year.