Nick King, an aquaculture scientist at Cawthorn Institute, told FoodNavigator-Asia that the institute is currently focused on producing a single breed that addresses industry needs.
“Right now, the industry wants mussels that grow fast, that have consistently high meat yield and low shell breakage,” he said.
“It’s likely that these requirements will become more complex once we understand what other traits it’s possible to breed for, especially things that will help add value and make the product more desirable for the consumer.”
He added that the researchers are working towards a single breed or variety by making mussel families, whereby all the mussels in a family are brothers and sisters, and then identifying the families that meet the criteria considered important by the industry.
The need was there
King said that almost all mussel seed in New Zealand is sourced from the wild, and there is scope for improving stocks the same way that many land-based farmers have done with their livestock and crops.
“As well as improving the genetics, producing mussel spat in the hatchery ensures a reliable, year-round supply of seed, and potentially improves the physical quality of the spat by giving it the best possible start in life,” he said.
The researchers have been seeing faster-growing mussels with more meat and stronger shells that result in less breakage—most New Zealand mussels are sold in the half-shell.
“We’re also looking to see what other traits may be amenable to breeding and have commercial value, and we expect to see some of these enter the breeding programme in the future. Consumer appeal, such as flavour, tenderness, shell colour, is one of the new areas we’re looking at,” he said.
Commercialisation not too far away
King revealed that SpatNZ, one of New Zealand’s largest mussel producers, is currently in the process of building the country’s first commercial-scale mussel hatchery. Once this is operational, mussels from the breeding programme will be used to supply a large proportion of the country’s crop.
“We’re expecting the initial gains to be in terms of total crop yield and efficiency. For many aquaculture species, the initial breeding gains are large since you’re selecting from wild stock,” he said, referring to a 10-20% gain in growth rate per generation.
“Add to that gains in quality and consistency, which help get exporters secure or maintain a good price on the market, and the benefits will be significant. Our aquaculture sector aims to more than double in value by 2025, and we expect the mussel industry to make a big contribution to that growth.”