Data loading...

Clean Seas’ Tuna Fingerlings Showing Strong Signs Of Cannibalism

After years of research and millions of dollars, tuna baron Hagen Stehr has finally hit the jackpot -- the world’s first southern bluefin tuna bred in tanks.

Now he confidently declares the revolutionary impact this could have on the booming seafood market: sidestepping tough fishing quotas and even replenishing wild supplies.

“It could have monstrous paybacks for Australia and the world,” said Mr. Stehr, chairman of Clean Seas Tuna, based at Port Lincoln in South Australia.

The tuna are still tiny, with the oldest only a month out of the egg. They range from the size of an apostrophe to about 2.5cm.

Swimming in large tanks at Clean Seas’ Arno Bay hatchery, an hour north of Port Lincoln, the fish are closely guarded by staff who are in uncharted scientific territory.

But Mr. Stehr says it is “purely a numbers game” from now on, a question of how much money to pour in for commercial production.

It's welcome news for investors, with the share price hovering between 70c and 80c, double what it opened at this year but a long way short of the $2.10 highs struck in 2007.

While Clean Seas’ fingerlings are still years away from maturity, they are already showing strong signs of development, such as cannibalism.

“It’s a very, very good sign but it pisses you off,” said Mr. Stehr, one of South Australia’s more colorful characters since he emigrated from Germany in the 1960s. “Every fish now is worth $4000-$5000.”

Clean Seas aims to produce 10,000 tons of the tuna annually by 2015 with a $10-per-kilogram before tax farmgate margin. Market size for the fish, known as the "Porsche of the sea" because of its 70km/h top speed, is about 20-30kg.

Interesting developments over the project's past three years include 35 days of continuous spawning this March and April, viewed as a world first by Mr. Stehr.

That result came after the breeding team finally conquered the biggest hurdle: coaxing the female tuna to spawn.

In the end, it came down to getting the ladies relaxed and comfortable, naturally. “If you are stressed, you can't make love at all,” Mr. Stehr said.

“Tuna are exactly the same. Stressed fish can’t make love.”

Tank conditions can be manipulated to replicate the natural migratory routes the tuna would take on the outside, using simulated tide and weather patterns to even recreate a moonlit night off the West Australian coast.

Once the tuna mated, there was enough larvae to meet Australia's current tuna production for 33 years, or 15 years of world production.

The resulting fingerlings testify to progress made since March last year, when the company announced the world-first hatching of live and active larvae, only to have the larvae die five days later.

Clean Seas' success follows a few years on the heels of the Japanese, who have now bred northern bluefin tuna, a project that Mr. Stehr said took more than 35 years.

Meeting with some Japanese visitors – “our friends from the north” -- last week, Mr Stehr was startled to learn they had grown the northern bluefin up to 70kg in three winters, and he proceeded to consult every fishery worker he came across on the news.

“That's bloody outrageous,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

If the fingerlings grow to maturity and the process can be reproduced, Clean Seas will be able to get around tough quotas imposed on Australian, Japanese and New Zealand wild tuna catches, and cash in on the insatiable demand.

“The quota pressure is coming on around the world, not just in Australia,” Mr. Stehr said. “This is the Holy Grail, that’s what everybody thinks we have done.”