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NZ Premium Whitebait ramps up production

NZN 1/02/2017 Tina Morrison

New Zealand Premium Whitebait, the country's only commercial whitebait farm, produced its first commercial harvest last year and is planning to invest in a larger facility so it can start selling overseas.

The company, predominantly owned by Maori interests, was formed in 2014 to commercially farm whitebait. The know-how was developed at the Mahurangi Technical Institute in Warkworth to enable whitebait, the juveniles of five species of fish, to be reintroduced into streams affected by Auckland's Northern Motorway extension.

It produced its first commercial harvest of about one tonne at Warkworth last year in a season running from August to December and will soon be seeking investment for a new saltwater facility to grow whitebait at NIWA's Bream Bay aquaculture base south of Whangarei.

The larger facility is expected to help boost production to between 20 to 30 tonne next year, from an estimated five to six tonne this year, and expand the length of the season, the company's chief executive Jeremy Gardiner told BusinessDesk.

Sales last year were limited by the small production, with about half going to premium local restaurants and the remainder sold in limited amounts at New World and Pak 'n Save supermarkets through the Foodstuffs cooperative.

Mr Gardiner said the company intends to use the established networks of its distributor Leigh Fisheries to also test overseas markets this year, tapping prominent New Zealand chefs such as the Michelin-star awarded Matt Lambert, of the Musket Room in New York.

"We will be really picking and choosing the sort of people that have some sway in the market in terms of getting a new food product onto people's plates and then supporting that," Mr Gardiner said.

"It will take some time to build international markets. It's not a product that's very well known."

One of New Zealand's most expensive seafood, whitebait is currently sold overseas for about $80 a kilogram, and Statistics New Zealand data published this week shows the country exported $108,688 worth of whitebait last year.

The increased investment in larger facilities, while costly, will enable the company to step up production and turn a profit in the next few years, he said.

The company's investors aim to fund the investment themselves if possible, said Mr Gardiner, who is the son of Wira Gardiner, a former deputy chair of Te Ohu Kaimoana, and Education Minister Hekia Parata.

Its whitebait is sold under the brand Manaki, a Maori term referencing hospitality and care for the environment.

Shareholders of NZ Premium Whitebait include Ka Ora, a company whose owners include the Gardiners.

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