Celebrating seafood safety
This week in 1993, New Zealand’s export-focused shellfish industry reopened following a nationwide three month shutdown. The enforced closure and ban on exports was in response to a toxic algal bloom that posed a public health threat. 25 years on from this event, New Zealand boasts a half billion dollar aquaculture sector; backed by a strong partnership between industry, science, and regulators.
Cawthron Research Scientist Dr Lincoln Mackenzie recognised in the early 1980’s that algal blooms and their associated biotoxins were an issue around the world and specialised in marine harmful algal blooms in the New Zealand environment. He was heavily involved in the scientific response to the 1993 bloom and said, “There was a lot of pressure at the time. People’s livelihoods were on the line and the media attention was huge - there was something people found very fascinating about this unknown thing from the ocean affecting their food supply.
“Now we’re much better placed because we have a long term record of monitoring around New Zealand so we know what to expect. We also benefit from our advances in chemical methods, molecular tools, and world-leading monitoring.
“If this type of event happens tomorrow, we’ll know quickly and there won’t be any mystery about it,” said Dr Mackenzie.
Marine farmer and former long-time Marine Farmers Association President Rob Pooley was in the early stages of his new business at the time, and reflected on the impact of the event and the importance of improving methods to reduce false positives. “We had to get up to speed on the science and it was a massive learning curve.
“There was a lot of uncertainty and the humanitarian cost was real. Many of us had little to no income and there were folk in the Havelock community relying on food parcels.
“We’re resilient people and knew we would make it through, but there were certainly casualties within the marine farming industry,” said Mr Pooley.
Al Campbell was a regulator in 1993, and said closure was a painful decision that cost industry dearly. Looking back now though, he acknowledges the role of the bloom in bringing about innovation, “At the time there was a user pays model in science research, and that meant industry really owned the problem and became partners in the solution.
“Industry worked closely with scientists and regulators, so all new innovations were driven out of a desire to be collaborative, cost effective, and scientifically robust. This established the teamwork that is a great strength of the research programmes we have today,” said Mr Campbell.
The toxins responsible for the 1993 event were eventually identified by Japanese researchers, and to this day are only found regularly around the Florida coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. Cawthron continues to have positive legacy relationships with the overseas scientists and institutes that supported the scientific response, and they form part of the Nelson-based Institute’s international network.
Cawthron Marine Toxin Chemist Dr Tim Harwood leads the Safe New Zealand Seafood Programme which is funded by MBIE and is a collaboration between the seafood industry, scientists, and MPI. Dr Harwood said, “There's a need for industry, scientists, and regulators to continue to work together to enable the generation of safe seafood that is both delicious and able to enter our premium markets.
“Our research is focused on knowing the risks and doing things better; in the field of harmful algae and marine toxins that’s better understanding the ecology and drivers of bloom events, and developing quicker, cheaper, more accurate analysis methods that benefit industry and the consumer,” said Dr Harwood.
Cawthron Institute is internationally recognised for its harmful algae research, analytical chemistry capability and has a reputation for excellence in marine toxin research. Cawthron Scientist Dr Lesley Rhodes also applied her expertise at the time of the 1993 bloom, and she was named in the Queen's Birthday Honours List 2017 for services to science and marine farming. Dr Rhodes explained that we’re now well placed with a raft of future-focused research looking at emerging threats, new technologies, and potential toxins that we could see in New Zealand due to warming waters.
“Since 1993, we’ve got laboratories running regular phytoplankton monitoring programmes, our chemistry and molecular teams have grown, and we have this extremely valuable microalgae collection which underpins the development of molecular and chemical methods,” said Dr Rhodes.