Kingfish star is rising

A commitment to research has helped Clean Seas overcome developmental setbacks on the path improving Yellowtail Kingfish production

Incubation tank at Clean Seas hatchery where eggs hatch into larvae and develop into fingerlings

By Rose Yeoman

A sleek torpedo-shaped finfish described as ‘the bullet of the sea’ has become one of the latest success stories on the Australian aquaculture scene.

Yellowtail Kingfish (Seriola lalandi) is a circumglobal species living in temperate waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In Australia it ranges from North Reef in Queensland around the southern coast to Trigg Island in Western Australia, and is a highly regarded recreational sports fish.

Yet it has taken South Australian company Clean Seas to successfully pioneer the propagation, husbandry, harvesting and marketing of farmed Hiramasa Yellowtail Kingfish from facilities on and offshore of the Eyre Peninsula.

The company’s research into fish propagation dates back more than a decade and was initially focused on Southern Bluefin Tuna (SBT) (Thunnus maccoyii). Clean Seas chief executive officer Craig Foster says Yellowtail Kingfish were an early, experimental diversification along the path to SBT propagation.

With some early success, subsequent diet and disease issues led to high economic loss in the kingfish program.

Clean Seas then embarked on an ambitious R&D program in partnership with the Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre (Seafood CRC) and the FRDC, which led to a tremendous improvement in both health and productivity.

So much so that the company has changed its medium-term business focus to kingfish and suspended its SBT propagation program.

Craig Foster says the most critical aspect of R&D was determining dietary requirements for kingfish. A recent breakthrough has highlighted the importance of taurine in the grow-out diet. Clean Seas also suffered an unpredictable fingerling supply due to jaw deformity and was producing two fingerlings for every one sent to sea.

“Researcher Bennan Chen led the investigations into resolving jaw deformity in juvenile kingfish. Bennan and his team identified the cause, and we now produce one fingerling for every one that goes to sea,” Craig Foster says.

“The outcome of our R&D was that we went back to basics, to the understanding that fish health and the productivity of fish is fundamental to the profitability of the business.”

At Clean Seas the journey from fertilised kingfish egg to a marketable four-kilogram fish takes 18 months. A selective breeding program produces fertilised eggs at the company’s Arno Bay hatchery in SA. As far as possible the breeding environment replicates that of the ocean, to encourage reproduction.

The way forward for Clean Seas Yellowtail Kingfish production: healthy fingerlings.
Photos: Clean Seas

The eggs are placed into incubation tanks to hatch into larvae, which are then raised into fingerlings before their release into sea cages in the Spencer Gulf. Grow-out occurs in tensioned nets designed to maximise water flow, minimise fouling and protect the developing fish from predators such as seals.

Biomass growth is cyclical through the annual growth and harvest cycle. Optimal growth occurs when water temperature is in the range of 18°C to 25°C, with most growth occurring during summer.

“Our selective breeding program was established with research support from the Seafood CRC. We now produce all fingerlings from selectively bred broodstock. An ongoing breeding program should see improvement in productivity at our sea farms.”

The company’s infrastructure has the potential to support production of up to 6000 tonnes of kingfish a year.

The FRDC is a substantial investor in the Seafood CRC, which has, since 2003, funded a range of projects leading to improvements in Yellowtail Kingfish larvae and juvenile supply and quality, improved hatchery production of larvae and fingerlings, and commercialisation strategies for Yellowtail Kingfish genetics.

Craig Foster says focusing on feed and improvements in fish husbandry have delivered outstanding results. Kingfish survival, health and growth rates are better than they have ever been and there has been no return of feed or disease issues that have plagued breeding efforts in recent years.

Ninety-one percent of this year’s fingerlings survived compared with the 2012 survival rate of 47.2 per cent. Biomass growth is on track to expand production from the current 500 tonnes a year to reach profitable production levels of 1500 tonnes in 2015.

In 2008-09 about half of the company’s kingfish production was exported, but more recently 90 per cent of product has been sold in Australia and 10 per cent in Europe. “In future, we’d like an equal split between the domestic and export markets, as we had before,” Craig Foster says.

He defines Clean Seas’ competitive advantages as uniform production, ability to service markets all year round and good-quality, good-sized fish. Demand from Europe is counter-cyclical and this fits in well with production for domestic markets. Clean Seas is also a market leader for fingerlings, exporting 20,000 to Europe in 2012.

When Clean Seas was first publicly listed in 2005, it was a production-led company producing more kingfish than demand required. The 4000-tonne production in 2008-09 sold for $7 per kilogram. Now, with new markets in place, it has become market-led and achieves a ‘farmgate’ price of $14.50 per kilogram whole weight.

The company has established markets for premium-grade sashimi Yellowtail Kingfish in Australia, Asia, the US and Europe and also for high-end, ‘white tablecloth’ restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Europe. Demand for Yellowtail Kingfish exceeds supply and the success of the business has had a flow-on effect for wild catch.

“When we first entered the market, wild-caught kingfish was selling for $5 or $6 per kilogram but by expanding our market we have highlighted the species, repositioning it in the marketplace and it now sells for $16 to $17 per kilogram.” 

More information

Craig Foster, 08 8621 2900