25 January, 2017
Twenty years ago Whakatōhea iwi had a vision to run its own mussel business.
Now, the dream has come true - and Native Affairs were there last year to see how the new farm will help the Opōtiki community in the Bay of Plenty.
Opōtiki is battling high unemployment and the socio-economic problems that go with it.
But 20 years ago the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board found an answer under the sea.
“Few of us [who] are left who saw, take note and were part of the work that was done. We initially surveyed the area for the mussel farm,” says Te Riaki Amoamo of Whakatōhea.
8.5 kms north of Opōtiki is Eastern Sea Farms. The Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board owns 54% of this offshore mussel farm the size of 38 rugby fields and the largest of its kind in the country.
It wasn’t easy. Consent alone took 10 years and cost the Board more than a million dollars.
Years of research and trials followed. Big players like Sealords pulled out. Others just weren’t interested.
Dickie Farrar, Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board CEO, says “You know it is an investment and it is risky. And then they probably wanted to see a little bit more. But to have our whole community come on board, well, we were blown away. We were absolutely blown away.”
When the venture needed capital Opōtiki locals lined up. Māori and Pākehā, families, business owners, pensioners. Their money allowed the farm to continue and expand.
“They were committed to being a part of this because they could see there was an opportunity,” says Dickie.
Arihia Tuoro, Whakatōhea Mussel Director, says spat or young mussels that occur naturally in these waters are a key to the farm’s success.
“We are growing and producing possibly at this stage more spat than most other areas. It’s created another product for us,” she says.
Increased production will eventually fund a commercial wharf and mussel processing plant in Opōtiki.
Dickie says, “It’s the first step in a future that we hope will bring jobs for our people in all the industries that are around,”
“We’ve got to make sure our people and our community are right through the levels and layers of business, employment, within our town that’s been generated by this whole business. So that’s the goal,” says Arihia.
They’re on track to do that with 137 lines each measuring 4 kms jammed packed with mussels.
The first early morning harvest produced more than 470 bags of mussels.
A few hours later the mussels were being unloaded in Whakatāne and trucked to Auckland for distribution.
But a four-day supply for New World in Opōtiki wasn’t enough for the locals and sold out in less than a day. A lucky few got a taste from Arihia fresh off the boat.
“So I literally just opened up the boot, called out to them, they came out to the boot, they all came running with their bags and then literally as they were doing that another shareholder just happened to drive up and park in the parallel park next to me. He jumped out with a knife. He’s shelling and eating out my boot. It was just wonderful. And then that was it. The sack was gone,” she says.
Dickie says, “I think it’s just because they’re Whakatōhea [mussels] that makes them great.”