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Edible seaweed venture attracts government funding

Wakame Fresh director Lucas Evans, and the invasive seaweed Undaria or wakame, at a mussel farm in Coromandel Town.

Coromandel company Wakame Fresh is the first recipient of a government grant to help it turn pest seaweed into premium edible export.

Undaria is an invasive seaweed and is often referred to as the gorse of the sea as it is a scourge for the mussel industry, clogging the lines around the mussel farms.

However, the edible seaweed is a delicacy in markets in Japan, where it is known as ‘wakame’.

Coromandel Town-based Wakame Fresh has received $75.000 from the Government’s $40 million-a-year Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund (SFF Futures) to investigate the commercial viability of harvesting, processing and exporting the edible seaweed to Japan – where quality wakame is in short supply.

It’s the first project to receive money from the Ministry for Primary Industries, through the fund.

The small Wakame Fresh business, led by owners Lucas Evans and Lance Townsend, has been harvesting Undaria for domestic consumption for seven years and began exporting to Australia in 2018. It is contributing $114,182 to the commercial viability test, which will wrap-up at the end of the year.

Lucas says the project is about turning 'gorse into gourmet' and advancing opportunities for the the aquaculture industry.

"This is a project that's also important for New Zealand more broadly, as we explore the feasibility of a new aquaculture sector.".

Wakame Fresh hosted the Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor on the Coromandel Harbour on Friday to see wakame processing first hand.

The seaweed was cut from the lines around the mussel farms then blanched and cooled on the mussel barge.

In a joint media release with the Minister of Fisheries, Damien says the wakame project is a perfect example of the type of innovation that SFF Futures was created for.

“This project is really exciting. It’s pioneering, it’s innovative and it has the potential to create new market opportunities. It also supports a Government priority to assist thriving and sustainable regions.

“This could be the next big thing for New Zealand. We could be looking at the start of a lucrative edible seaweed export market into Japan and other Asian countries.”

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash says a number of people, including investors and researchers, are interested in this project’s trial and its results.

“If successful, it will encourage New Zealand’s aquaculture sector to collaborate and invest further in this area.

“Aquaculture is a growth industry for this country and has the potential to play a more significant role in our economy. It’s currently worth $600 million a year and employs more than 3000 people. We want to be the most productive, sustainable country in the world. Projects like this will contribute to New Zealand’s reputation in sustainable and innovative aquaculture."

Thames Coromandel District Council has supported Wakame Fresh in developing initial contacts for the funding opportunities and by helping locate a suitable site at Coromandel Town to base its processing operations (with a resource consent granted a couple of weeks ago).

"A huge congratulations to Lucas and his team for their hard work and innovation to get to this stage," our Council's Communications and Economic Development Group Manager Laurna White says.

"If we can help get businesses like Wakame invested in our district, and boost employment, it's a win-win for everyone."

The SFF Futures funding will be used to conduct a feasibility study, including planning and finalising an approach to trial export of samples of wakame for market research.

If this is successful, it is expected Wakame Fresh Ltd would enter a commercial contract for on-going commercial export of wakame.

A condition of the funding is that Wakame Fresh shares the information gained with the wider New Zealand seaweed industry, which the small business has embraced.

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