As defined by our Exclusive Economic Zone, this country’s ocean estate is 15 times the size of our land mass. To put it another way, 94 percent of Aotearoa is under water. That presents a massive opportunity, remarks Dr Chris Cornelisen. “The ocean,” he says, “is our future.” So how can we better use it to improve lives and create jobs in a sustainable way?

When Chief Science Capability Officer of the Nelson-based Cawthron Institute Dr Chris Cornelisen talks about the ocean as our future, he doesn’t mean business-as-usual marine-based industries, with all that entails in terms of questionable practices. As part of an organisation heavily focused on aquaculture and environmental research, Chris is intimately involved in the development of what’s been called the blue economy. This is defined by the World Bank as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem”.

In other words, it’s green growth in a blue setting. “Looking through a blue economy lens, our marine activities should follow certain principles,” says Chris. “They’re yet to be defined for New Zealand, but in essence a business following blue economy principles is one that’s not only looking at the bottom line, but also at how it is contributing positively to cultural, social and ecological wellbeing.”

Technological innovation will be key

We’re in a transitional phase to this brave new world. In 2019, the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge programme looked at the state of play. It reported that fisheries, aquaculture and shipping are starting to incorporate aspects of the blue economy such as green innovation. It also highlighted emerging industries, from seaweed farming to developments in artificial intelligence, and suggested that technological innovation will be key to developing a truly blue economy.

Chris is part of the leadership team of Sustainable Seas, and for the past four years has led a Spearhead project for the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge researching precision aquaculture, which draws heavily on electronic engineering. He says engineering is going to be pivotal to a thriving local blue economy, pointing as an example to work Cawthron is doing to research structures for offshore aquaculture farms.

The ocean presents some of the greatest engineering challenges on Earth because of the energy it holds. Our engineers always say ‘the ocean likes to eat things’. – Dr Chris Cornelisen

Working with the ocean

How we respond will be different from the approach taken in countries such as Norway, which in the past few years has been deploying heavily engineered platforms in the North Sea for salmon farming. Chris suggests the Aotearoa approach will be about working with the ocean. “For instance, Cawthron’s Ngā Punga o Te Moana: Anchoring Our Open Ocean Aquaculture Future programme is designing submersible systems which can grow shellfish such as oysters, scallops and mussels in high-energy seas 10km offshore. He says they’re also collaborating with Plant & Food Research to explore what open ocean aquaculture might look like far into the future.

“In that world, we might have farms that drift with currents rather than fight them. What are the technologies we’re going to need to be able to move farms remotely, possibly even to below the surface when a storm’s coming?” His project on precision aquaculture, meanwhile, is focused on developing new ways to see and measure. Right now, he says, working out in the open ocean is “like farming in the dark”. The goal is sensor technology that can measure the right things, find ways to get the data collected back to shore, then engineer it into a form useful to producers.

“Another cool thing that the University of Canterbury has done within the project with our engineers is to turn an affordable, open-sourced Remote Operated Underwater Vehicle (ROV) into an autonomous vehicle that can scan a farm.”He says using stereoscopic vision in cameras to navigate, and software called Unreal Engine, which is used for movies and gaming, they’ve created a virtual environment that can be used to train a ROV. “You download software, then let your ROV do its thing. Salmon farmers might use it to look for holes in their pen structures, for instance.”

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An experimental shellfish growing structure is deployed at a Bay of Plenty marine farm. Image: Cawthron Institute

Ecological engineering solutions

Other innovations happening in the blue economy have an obvious sustainability payoff. The Cawthron Institute is currently working on what Chris describes as ecological engineering solutions to invasive marine pests and biofouling. There’s a restorative aspect, too. “Extensive areas of our coast have been ‘hardened’ – think of a port or harbour – where we’ve lost natural character and values such as the ability to harvest shellfish. We can rethink those hardened structures with the materials we use.” He says:

“At Cawthron, we’ve been playing around with 3D-printed surfaces that attract native critters that inhibit invasive species and that could be used to create more rocky reef environments that would increase biodiversity. At the same time, you’d create value for the community by enhancing the collection of kai moana.” They’re also looking at re-engineering wharves to incorporate bubbling to discourage settlement of pest species. But New Zealand won’t realise its blue economy potential through innovative engineering alone. Take aquaculture, for instance, where the goal is a $3 billion industry by 2035. We won’t get there without a mindset shift, reckons Chris.

“We need to bridge the gap between tinkering and commercial reality, and we need to collaborate in the truest sense of the world,” he says. Another point: while New Zealand’s marine businesses are fantastic at innovating solutions to one-off problems, it tends to end there. “The opportunity globally for the blue economy is huge. So how do we not just solve a problem here, but take that [solution] to the world?

There’s a double win opportunity there that we have to maximise, and that definitely takes an engineering way of thinking, not just a food grower mindset.” Get it right, however, and New Zealand is wellpositioned to build an authentic blue economy, says Chris, who highlights strengths such as mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). “When it comes to innovation and engineering, what sets us apart is that layer of cultural knowledge. It’s a powerful thing, especially in thinking about the health of our ocean, what it looks like and what solutions might be.”

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Cawthron Institute Electronics Engineer Shaun Graham works on a submersible data logging load-cell shackle. Images: Cawthron Institute

Incorporating Māori perspectives and knowledge

With 35 percent interest in the seafood industry by value, Māori will be pivotal to how the blue economy unfolds. But how well are Māori cultural values being implemented? Massey University’s Dr Jason Mika co-led a piece of 2019 research titled Creating a World-leading Indigenous Blue Economy that explored regulatory and policy tools to embed mātauranga Māori in sustainable commercial and customary fishing activities, among other things.

There’s a deep desire among Māori marine enterprises to incorporate Māori values to the furthest extent possible in their operations,” – Dr Jason Mika, Associate Professor at Massey’s School of Management.

“They do it by allowing those values to inform their purpose – why they’re in the business of fishing, their strategies – what they do and choose not to do, and how they evaluate their performance. Are they behaving in a way consistent with being a good kaitiaki of oceanic resources? “Each business is doing it their own way. In the case of a large organisation like Moana New Zealand, Māori values permeate their strategy and their sustainability activities. They’re looking at changing their nets, their harvesting practices, and the methods they use to process seafood.”

Looking more broadly at how the blue economy could evolve, Jason cites the metaphor of the waka hourua, the double-hulled vessel, where te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā combine to move things forward. “It’s about how we get the best out of both bodies of knowledge – science and mātauranga.” In practice, that’s not an easy match. Jason notes that Māori communities may have in-depth localised knowledge of the moana. “But what scope is there for Māori knowledge and perspectives, and particularly of those kaitiaki in local environments, to inform how we manage our marine environment? The system isn’t geared up to do that well.

”What about engineers? How could more Māori knowledge be incorporated into engineering for the blue economy? “Our engineering schools need to teach this stuff,” says Jason.“The other thing is for whoever is commissioning new technologies and engineering solutions for the blue economy to insist that Māori perspectives and knowledge, Te Tiriti o Waitangi principles, and the rights and interests of Māori communities are part of the process. “When the private sector is looking for innovation, one of the last places it looks is at indigenous knowledge, yet there are thousands of years of accumulated knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in relation to the environment that could be tapped.”