The head of the country’s largest independent science organisation says 96 percent of our territory is ocean, and its potential beyond a place from where to gather kai has been massively overlooked. Tracy Neal reports.

Plankton, seaweed, and knowledge of how to grow the latter in a wild and treacherous environment are being eyed as the foundation of a burgeoning blue economy.

Volker Kuntzsch heads the 101-year-old Cawthron Institute in Nelson, which has long been at the forefront of research into freshwater and coastal ecology. It is now looking to explore how to better use our vast ocean resource in a way that gives back more than we take.

“The ocean provides more than half of the air we breathe and that often goes unnoticed. Obviously, there’s a need for us to protect our ocean environment, but there’s also ample opportunity to develop the ocean space in such a way that it helps us mitigate the impact of climate change.”

Cawthron Institute chief executive Volker Kuntzsch. Photo: Tracy Neal

The German-born, African-raised zoologist took over as Cawthron’s CEO in March 2021 and was soon making waves over the direction he planned to steer the ship.

Kuntzsch says Cawthron has a responsibility to find ways to stop further degradation of New Zealand’s coastal and freshwater, while not closing its eyes to the need to adapt to survive long-term. It must also play a part in global efforts to find solutions for restoring the environment.

“We have not utilised our ocean’s capability for much, if any, sustainability-related thinking and it is my firm belief, which is proven elsewhere, that the ocean presents a massive opportunity in mitigating the effects of climate change.”

Coming from someone with an honours degree in giraffes and a master’s in bat-eared foxes, that might seem like far-out thinking, but less so when his qualifications led to an international career in the seafood industry. Kuntzsch has held senior executive roles in Tokyo, Namibia, Germany and the United Kingdom. He served as president of Nippon Suisan (USA), and president and CEO of King & Prince Seafood (USA), before moving to New Zealand in 2013 to become chief of fishing company Sanford.

In 2019, he won the Rabobank Leadership Award and was a finalist in the Chief Executive of the Year category at the 2019 Deloitte Top 200 Awards.

The role at Cawthron blends his talent for management and his love of science, which placed him in the city that first took his fancy in the late 1990s. He once travelled widely as a fish buyer for the European market, and Nelson was a dot on the map.

“I always thought New Zealand – and especially Nelson – was a place I wanted to live one day.”

It was during his time with Sanford in Auckland that he forged links with the Cawthron Institute, through the work of Nelson-based greenshell mussel technology and production organisation SPATnz.

“That gave me an insight into Cawthron, but I must admit, when I left Sanford, I didn’t expect I’d one day work for it.”

Cawthron Aquaculture Park. Photo: Supplied

Volker says Nelson’s drawcard was also its faint reminder of home in Namibia and South Africa – places embedded in his soul for reasons beyond where his roots lie. He was in his late 20s when his first wife and their two-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident as he was pulling into port from a fishing trip, ending life as he knew it in Africa.

A year later he returned to Germany. Parallel to his career trajectory were subsequent marriages and children. His candour about this, and how his six children are his greatest inspiration, earned him a standing ovation from hundreds of delegates at a business conference in Nelson in mid-2021.

He says it was the most surprising thing that had ever happened in his entire career, and the hardest speech he had ever delivered because of how vulnerable he felt.

“I showed a photo at the Aspire Conference of my then two-year-old, and said I want her to one day say, ‘Thank you Dad for what you have done’, and not, ‘Dad – what have you done’.”

Cawthron is one of Nelson’s largest employers, with 300 highly skilled staff from 35 countries. They deliver science that helps to protect the environment and support the sustainable development of primary industries in New Zealand and worldwide.

Kuntzsch sees an opportunity to stimulate thinking on investing to benefit humankind, not only for producing protein sustainably for human diets, but as a means to help extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Marine harvesting in the Marlborough Sounds. Photo: Tracy Neal

Oceans are natural carbon sinks that help to buffer the continued emissions from human activity, but they are under immense strain. Increasing volumes of micro algae (plankton) and macro algae (seaweed) in the ocean might help to mitigate problems associated with warming seas and ocean acidification.

“We could suggest that by shifting some of the emphasis of primary production from the land to the oceans we would do ourselves a massive favour in terms of combating climate change.”

Kuntzsch says there are examples to follow around the world where seaweed is grown as a carbon sink, but its potential as a protein source is wildly under-exploited.

“There’s an opportunity to utilise some of the almost one thousand different species of seaweed that we have around the New Zealand coast to provide protein for human consumption.”

Kuntzsch believes the marine fishing and aquaculture sectors have a future, but improvement is needed in some areas where traditional methods have clearly led to degradation of the immediate environment.

Cawthron provides expertise to the marine-farming sectors. It grows spat on land for mussels and oysters, which provides more resilience in a warming environment, and where ocean acidification will play an increasing role.

“We know that fishing and aquaculture are sustainable compared to many other protein-production methods, but they have a relatively poor reputation, and that’s often linked to the lack of transparency provided to the degree necessary in order to garner consumers’ trust.

“More needed to have been done to improve social licence of those practices.”

Baby Marlborough mussels. Photo: Tracy Neal

Kuntzsch says there are barriers to advancing goals for growing our marine farming industries, including New Zealand’s distance from export markets and our often-extreme weather and sea conditions, which make open-ocean fish farming challenging at even the lower end of the scale.

“There are certainly barriers if you consider the technical ability we have to just put farms out there. There needs to be a lot more innovation yet.”

Ample space remains in more sheltered areas, Kuntzsch says, while highlighting the lack of appetite for farming commodity species that are grown elsewhere.

“Because it’s too far to market and whatever advantage we might gain by farming here would be eaten up by the carbon footprint it takes to export those species.

“Our focus should be on adding the highest possible value – which is not about using large amounts of space but farming species that create high value and are very pointed in terms of providing high nutritional value.”

Cawthron has already helped with several advances in nutrition and medicine using marine-based compounds, the latest being a global breakthrough in an algae-based pain medication.

The institute has collaborated with medical researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and Chilean biotech company Proteus to develop a commercially scalable method for producing neosaxitoxin. The potent toxin from the paralytic shellfish toxin family has been developed for use as a local anaesthetic in patients undergoing surgery.

Kuntzsch says the country needs to focus on its unique points of difference, which are knowledge and adaptability, which could be bundled into valuable Intellectual Property.

“We are already developing offshore technology, and the capability of remotely collecting data out at sea that enables farmers worldwide to not have to investigate farms on a daily basis but to rely on automated mechanisms.”

Kuntzsch says success will rely on greater collaboration with industry partners to develop ideas that benefit New Zealand as a whole.

“Ideally, we all want to make a difference and do something that moves us in the right direction.

“New Zealand has the fourth-largest exclusive economic zone in the world. We are very alone in the South Pacific and we should be the ones thinking about this.

“This is our opportunity to make an impact both here and globally, but we have to be courageous.”

* Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund *

An author and freelance journalist based in Nelson, Tracy Neal won journalism awards for her investigations revealing the bogus head of psychiatric services at Nelson Marlborough District Health Board.

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