Cawthron chief executive Professor Charles Eason (centre) says Cawthron Institute’s work helps underpin New Zealand’s world class reputation for safe, sustainable seafood from a pure environment. Image: Cawthron Institute.

Nearly 100 years after Thomas Cawthron highlighted the need for science to enhance and protect primary industry, Cawthron Institute is playing a vital role in adding value and sustainability to New Zealand’s seafood sector. Sophie Preece reports.

In a large Spanish laboratory at the edge of the Galician coastline, a scientist uses a drop of Cawthron sourced precious liquid to test mussels for okadaic acid. In a far smaller lab in Nelson, at the edge of the Tasman Sea, Dr Paul McNabb and his team of scientists create that liquid gold from micro-algae, providing more than 200 labs around the world with tiny amounts of purified marine toxins.

Cawthron Institute has been researching marine micro-algae for the past three decades, and has become an internationally recognised centre for seafood safety. Off the back of that research, it is growing and processing micro-algae to produce exact quantities of around 30 natural compounds that can cause illness, paralysis or death when consumed in seafood. "Our toxins are used for calibration of new tests, and we can do the algal growing and isolation better than anyone else," says Paul.

Until recently, the Galician lab, like many, would have used a mouse test to safeguard consumers from toxins and subsequently protect the seafood industry. But the mouse test was costly, had delayed results, and often proved a false positive, in which case the dead mouse led industry and regulators to shut down harvest and recall stock, when in fact there was no actual threat, says Paul. That was bad news for the producer and the wider industry, let alone the sacrifi cial mouse.

Scientists at Cawthron, regulators and, most importantly, shellfi sh growers, were unsatisfi ed by the crude test, and aware that at some stage people would begin to "squeal" about the use of animals, says Paul. In 2000 they pioneered an instrumental test method for marine toxins in seafood, using a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometer (LC-MS).

Because the new test is calibrated, unlike the mouse, it indicates the level of the toxins, if present, so industry has a steer on whether their products are close to regulatory thresholds, says Paul. Fifteen years on, Cawthron Natural Compounds is a world leader in growing and processing micro-algae to produce the purified toxins required as a reference material for the test.

Meanwhile, the new test developed by Cawthron has become the standard worldwide, and is mandated by the European Union, resulting in a leap in demand for the toxins. "Our work changed the regulations and the way we do this testing, so it's opened this market up," says Paul. He points out that using a highly skilled team to produce something that is virtually weightless, but has an incredibly high value per gram, is a great business model for New Zealand.

Last year Cawthron Institute signed a deal with global distribution company Sigma-Aldrich, which works with labs in America, France, Australia, Spain and beyond. It's a phenomenal success story for the Cawthron Institute, earning export dollars and international prestige. Meanwhile, another project is also building on Cawthron's decades of research into natural toxins in shellfi sh. The Institute, along with Japan's Hokkaido University and National Research Institute of Fisheries Science, is conducting research to better understand the link between food, obesity and diabetes. The team is investigating the natural properties of New Zealand Greenshell™ mussels, paua, and several species of seaweed and algae. Their first step will be to determine if the foods have any effect on the diseases, says Paul, who is project leader. "If they do, then we'll attempt to identify and isolate the cause for those effects, and then see if we can infl uence the levels of those components in raw foods, or replicate them artificially in the lab."

He says it's not about food being a cure for the diseases, "but foods can affect the body's response to disease - and we want to find out how and why this happens". The project builds on 20 years of research between Cawthron and Japanese scientists looking at natural toxins in shellfish, and complements Cawthron's existing research into health promoting properties from Greenshell™ mussels and algae.

Projects like this and the marine toxins work have enormous potential to add value to the seafood sector. But they're just the cherry on the top of a research programme ensuring the safety and sustainability of New Zealand's seafood industry.

The Safe New Zealand Seafood programme is a collaboration between programme leader Cawthron, AgResearch, Plant & Food Research, and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

Dr Tim Harwood with the liquid chromatography-mass spectrometer (LC-MS) used to check seawater and seafood for undesirables. Image: Sophie Preece.

Co-leader Dr Tim Harwood, speaking from another Cawthron lab in Nelson, says it is an "insurance policy", to ensure New Zealand's seafood continues to gain access to premium export markets. The programme has seven years of Government funding through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), with just over $2million per year, from 2013 to 2020. Tim says seafood is the only primary sector with a dedicated food safety research programme and everyone involved sees it as enormously valuable.

Dr Paul McNabb says the move to using LC-MS to test for seafood safety, in lieu of live mice, was also due to a fear that in Europe there would eventually be some "squealing" about the use of animal testing. Image: Cawthron Institute.

"To have this background programme to identify current risks and come up with ways to better address them, or to look out to the horizon and scan for emerging risks that are likely to come to our shores, and be able to address them, is pretty cool." The work is strengthened by being collaborative, bringing the "best team to the table to meet the needs of the industry".

The expertise of each organisation is utilised to investigate and identify pre-harvest and postharvest microorganism risks to New Zealand seafood, including harmful micro-algae, viruses and bacteria. The collaboration goes beyond New Zealand shores, and Tim has worked with scientists in Japan, the UK, Canada and French Polynesia since he joined the programme in 2012, and more recently has been sharing Cawthron's knowledge with several Australian research organisations.

He says New Zealand has a worldleading reputation in testing seafood safety, largely thanks to a "major event" in 1993, when all commercial shellfish areas in New Zealand were closed because of toxins produced from a micro-algae bloom event. That spurred Government, industry and scientists to act, establishing relationships with expert marine toxin chemists in Japan, kick-starting regular monitoring of seawater and shellfish flesh, and enhancing collaboration between labs, government regulators and industry.

Experienced Cawthron scientists Dr Lesley Rhodes and Dr Lincoln McKenzie were already conducting research on micro-algae toxins and the event gave their work greater relevance and impetus. In 2000 Cawthron decided to lead the move away from the mouse bioassay and spent around $1million dollars on its first mass spectrometer to measure levels of marine toxins in shellfish.

Tim says that was "a massive risk and a massive outlay" at the time, but the result has been of great benefit to the industry, with financial savings, faster turnaround times and a reduction of false positive results. "We now have reasonably regular blooms of harmful micro-algae around the coastline of New Zealand and it does affect the industry, but we are able to monitor toxin levels and are able to ensure there's no risk of harvesting contaminated product, so that it can be exported and people don't get sick."

These days he has a room full of the LC-MS, a team with the niche skills to use them, and a programme with an international reputation. Their work, while ensuring the safety of New Zealand seafood for export, has a halo effect and also leads to greater safety for recreational fishers. It can also impact on refi ning regulations, such as calling for a reduction or removal of a regulated marine biotoxin level, based on a toxicologist's research.

"We can help be a rule maker rather than a rule taker," says Tim.

When the analytical chemists confirm the presence of toxins, they alert the compounds team, who can harvest the algae cells required to create their purifi ed marine toxins from the wild, rather than growing them in the lab. For Tim, whose background is in academia, the work has "real world" impacts, and he loves being able to pick up the phone to talk to a mussel farmer he's helping.

"For your science to mean something and make a difference - that's very rewarding." The Cawthron Analytical Services team provides food safety and compliance testing for the wider seafood industry to ensure they meet overseas market access requirements (OMARs), such as label claims, microbiology and chemical contaminants, like mercury. It also provides research and development services for seafood by products and marine extracts.

Cawthron technical consultant, Craig Waugh, inspects a marine toxin sample. Image: Cawthron Institute.

Paul and Tim are two of more than 200 scientists, laboratory technicians, researchers and specialist staff working for Cawthron in Nelson, delving into a range of outcomes based projects. Cawthron chief executive Professor Charles Eason says it is work that remains true to the wishes of institute founder Thomas Cawthron nearly 100 years ago, to provide science in support of primary industry. "It underpins our world class reputation for safe, sustainable seafood from a pure environment."

Cawthron's Coastal and Freshwater Group provides farmers with knowledge and tools to find suitable space and to assess and manage the environmental impacts of their farms, as well as manage risks, including biosecurity, harmful micro-algae, and contaminants. And at its aquaculture park, 10 minutes north of Nelson, Cawthron runs projects in collaboration with industry, such as salmon feed studies, selective shellfish breeding, the SPATnz mussel hatchery and exploration of scampi opportunities. (see sidebar).

Alongside its research and science projects, Cawthron runs a host of community and educational initiatives. It is the major sponsor of the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards, runs the Nelson Science Fair, takes science into schools and holds a Seaweek photography competition each year. That's a vital part of ensuring science, sustainability and New Zealand's primary industries have a bright future, says Charles. "Through our community education and development programmes we're fostering the next generation of scientists and promoting a greater understanding and appreciation of the value of science."

Cawthron adding value

This year's New Zealand Seafood Industry Conference theme, "New Zealand Sustainable Seafood- Adding Value" is perfectly aligned with Cawthron Institute's work, which focuses on every step of a seafood product's life-cycle, from source to export, in order to improve production and sustainability. That work includes everything from breeding, spawning, growing and harvesting, to a product being packaged and exported around the world.

It's in the monitoring of the water, the development of aquaculture farms and on-farm technology, and in vitally important food safety testing and analysis to meet export requirements. Cawthron was established in 1919 and is New Zealand's largest independent science organisation, with more than 200 highly-skilled scientists, laboratory professionals and specialist staff. Its world class science is supported by substantial testing and research laboratories, state-of-the-art technology and purpose-built aquaculture park.

Here are a handful of Cawthron Institute's many outcomes based projects, which are striving towards a safe, sustainable and high-value seafood sector.


Cawthron's Coastal and Freshwater Group develops tools to look at the characteristics of a system, water currents, depths, and habitats surrounding a potential farm site. It also develops forecasting tools, including models to help simulate effects on the seabed, potential changes in levels of nutrients or predictions of harmful algal blooms or contamination events. The team also works with local councils to monitor water quality, sediment and the impact of fresh water.


A world-first mussel hatchery and lab facility opened at Cawthron Aquaculture Park in April, to selectively breed Greenshell™ mussels for industry. The mussel farming industry has traditionally relied on spat collected from the wild and, at the whim of nature, has had to adapt to variability of supply and quality. The new hatchery was built by Shellfish Production and Technology New Zealand Ltd (SPATnz) as part of a $26 million Primary Growth Partnership programme between SPATnz, Sanford Limited and the Ministry for Primary Industries.


A new research collaboration based at the Cawthron Aquaculture Park was announced in February, with a $5.2 million project spearheaded by Nelsonbased New Zealand King Salmon. The world-fi rst study aims to develop a high-quality, speciesspecifi c feed to improve on the generic products currently available. It brings together a research group comprised of Cawthron Institute, Seafood Innovations Ltd (SIL), the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and Danish feed producer BioMar.


This world-fi rst research project is aimed at moving scampi beyond frozen commodity production to a live export trade, thereby realising an estimated $200 million annual export potential. The initiative is led by Cawthron Institute in collaboration with Waikawa Fishing Company, University of Auckland and Zebra-Tech.