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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Clawing at hope [

The Mercury: Clawing at hope [04dec05]

A RESEARCH centre on King Island is racing to become the first to breed crayfish in captivity.

King Island Marine Research and Development is the only private organisation in the world trying to recreate the life cycle of the southern rock lobster.

If successful, the company will have found the marine biology equivalent of the Holy Grail and will be able to secure a multi-million-dollar export business in farmed crayfish.

But the research is painstaking and expensive and hatchery manager Bruce Atkinson says the most optimistic estimate is that the project will take another five to seven years.

"So far we have bred several thousand larvae in the hatchery but the longest we have been able to keep them alive is 30 days," he said.

"We need to be able to do it for 15 months, although it depends on whether we end up selling them at prawn size or the current legal size for wild fish."

Mr Atkinson said the biggest challenge was finding an appropriate food source.

"The biggest killer of the larvae is bacteria and every time we add food to the tanks, we are potentially also adding bacteria," he said.

The aquaculture researchers are now working with King Island industrial chemist Dennis Klumpp, who successfully unlocked the secret of cooking kelp to develop alternative food sources for the larvae.

Mr Atkinson said temperature was another challenge.

"Several times, we have lost larvae because of temperature spikes so we are now trying to work with lower temperatures.

"We are also experimenting with different tank designs because we've found the tank is critical to the process.

"Our work is still very much trial and error but we are developing our knowledge all the time."

The unlikely dreamer behind the project, which has already cost more than $2 million, is Sydney businessman Sam McGuid.

Fifteen years ago, Mr McGuid was travelling overseas when he met a businessman who had a backyard tank filled with lobsters.

"For some reason, this caught my imagination and I started to try to find out all I could about breeding lobsters," Mr McGuid said.

His research resulted in the establishment of King Island Marine Research and Development.

The facility includes 30 tanks, a marine laboratory and a hi-tech filtration plant.

The centre is staffed by two full-time marine biologists. Two Vietnamese scientists were consultants during its establishment.

"We are the only private sector company in the world attempting to close the crayfish lifecycle," Mr McGuid said.

"All the research and development work which has been done to date has taken place in university and government marine biology departments.

"There has been some limited success in Tasmania, Japan and New Zealand but the results have been very tenuous.

"If we are successful with this project, it will mean a very prosperous future with plenty of export dollars for Tasmania.

"The commercial breeding of crays is still a good way down the track but the international demand for them is huge and still growing and there is no way it can be met only from wild stock.

"If we can create a successful breeding program over the next few years we can not only service that market, we can also help reseed fishing grounds and restock and enhance wild fish stocks," Mr McGuid said.

"If we can breed these lobsters to a commercial stage and mimic their lifecycle in our facility, then we are speaking of giving Tasmania a major lead in a multi-million-dollar export business.

"This would also create a vibrant and labour-intensive industry for King Island and that is one way to keep our young people here and give them a future," he said.


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