Blog: Kaputī with Robert Edwards

Aug 12, 2020 | latest

Kia ora whānau 

With the upcoming ZUI around Settlement and Economic Development, we thought it would be a good chance to catch up with one of our panel speakers, Robert Edwards, Chairman of the Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board and WPCT Trustee. 

There has been so much kōrero lately about the Ōpōtiki Harbour Development, we wanted to know how the project came about and his thoughts on that journey. But what we uncovered, was so much more than just the Harbour Development, but a clear vision, with the overall strategy to invest in Ōpōtiki and those tangata whenua who call her home. 

In his words…. 
The harbour development came about because of the Mussel Farm.  In 1997, before my time, Sealord Shellfish Ltd and NZ Sea Farms Ltd came up to the North Island looking for sea space to develop. They found three places, but Ōpōtiki and Whakatōhea were the ones who took the opportunity. The other Iwi thought the proposal was too risky, and this was something entirely new. 

For Whakatōhea, the risk wasn’t an issue because we had nothing anyway. Everything had been taken from us, so we had nothing to lose. 
I came home in 2000 to retire, then got caught up in the politics and have been trying to retire ever since! So while I wasn’t involved in those initial discussions, I have been part of this journey since then. 

In 2001 we formed Eastern Seafarms Limited and lodged an application for the consent of 4775ha of sea space (for us to develop) with the Bay of Plenty Regional Countil (BOPRC). 

In 2009 we were approved for 3800ha that could be developed as a mussel farm, but we saw an opportunity in much more than just mussels, so we went back to the council requesting the consent to include other aquaculture species which was later approved.  

Once consent came through in 2009, 3 trial lines were laid to test the opportunity to commercialise the mussel farm venture.
In 2011 we aimed to harvest the first lot of mussels. But AUE, the Rena hit the Astrolab in Tauranga, and all our hard mahi and investment had to be dumped (approximately 60 tonnes of mussel). However, we proved to ourselves that we can catch spat and now knew that a viable mussel farm business was possible.  

So the original plan was always to: 
1.    Develop a mussel farm;
2.    Build a local mussel factory; and
3.    Develop the Ōpōtiki harbour (The harbour was always in the original strategy; we wanted to give back to Ōpōtiki).

We had no money, so we went out to see who was willing to invest in our mussel farm venture.  We went out to surrounding Iwi, our Mataatua and Te Arawa waka Iwi. But still, their appetite for investment in this was thought of as too risky. 

We had to ask our Ōpōtiki community to invest.  I genuinely believe that those who invested wanted the best for Ōpōtiki. They wanted to provide jobs for the local people and to see the town thrive again. That was how we raised the initial $2 million we needed to invest in the mussel farm. In about a month, we were able to raise this pūtea. 

In 2014 we commercialised the mussel farm with 24 more lines put down that same year.  And now we produce over 1200 tonnes of mussels annually.  Currently, we process out of town and use the Whakatāne harbour.

Late last year, 2019, we got confirmation that $19m from the PGF fund would be invested in a mussel processing factory.  Fantastic progress towards our long term vision.

We looked globally for the best way to progress our mussel factory; best practices and structures.  Our vision was becoming a reality with work underway.  At this stage, the mussel factory will be completed by June 2021.

The factory is one of a kind. We will have the ability to process live mussels, half shell frozen mussels (these are the most popular product), mussel powder, mussel meat and mussel oil.  The factory will see approximately 19% of waste, which are mussels with broken shells that can’t be sold on to consumers. This ‘wastage’ will now be able to be used in mussel powder and the mussel oil, which will then reduce our waste footprint to 3-4% of mussel shells. But even these shells we are looking into opportunities to use and to reduce our wastage. 

Then we got the news that the Crowns Infrastructure fund would be investing $79.4m on the Ōpōtiki harbour, that completed the original strategy developed in 1997. Whakatōhea and the Ōpōtiki District Council walked hand in hand with that strategy. 

We were a town who had lost a lot. Once deprived and dependant, and now we will have the biggest mussel farm in the world. We are a resilient people who have united to bring about the vision of prosperity to our little community. And once the Settlement is completed it will only enhance what we have achieved.

My thoughts have always been – for Iwi, Whānau, Hapū moving into the future.

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