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Making a comeback: the project to see more Marlborough mussels in the wild

Beneath the sheen of the Marlborough Sounds, life underwater has been struggling for years.

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Intense harvesting has nearly wiped it out. Source: 1 NEWS

Widespread harvesting has stripped out wild shellfish supplies, but now a project between marine farmers and scientists is underway to turn that around.

Up until the 1960s, there were extensive wild mussel beds in Marlborough and especially in the Pelorus, “and it was human activity, harvesting through the ‘70s and ‘80s before farming practices were developed that really stripped the wild stock out,” explains Marine Farming Association (MFA) general manager Ned Wells.

The seabeds haven’t recovered since and Auckland University PHD student Emilee Benjamin says the benthic community that used to be there, “which used to be mussels and other types of shellfish has been decreasing overtime”.

Aroma Aquaculture operations manager Vaughan Ellis says it's becoming “non-commercially viable to actually catch or attempt to catch local spat now”.

He and others in the industry want that to change.

Marine farmers are leading a three-year research project with input from NIWA and the University of Auckland to restore wild mussel beds, similar to work underway in the Hauraki Gulf.

It’s backed by nearly $400,000 worth of funding from MPI’s Sustainable Farming Fund, as well as a $100,000 contribution from the MFA.

Mr Wells describes it as “a great, multi-faceted project”.

“It's doing good for the environment and if we can restore the spat resource, it’s going to be good for industry as well”.

Four tonnes of limited local spat has been put into plots underwater. Every couple of months the scientists will be back here to check on the mussel beds, how they're doing, what conditions they're in and if other living things have moved into the neighbourhood.

Ms Benjamin says because mussels are “one of the foundations of an ecosystem, once they are thriving on the seafloor, they tend to bring in lots of other organisms.

“They'll create an environment for all other animals to live”.

Although mussels help filter murky waters, they can be smothered themselves. The scientists will be watching to see how they'll respond to the increase in sediment when there are large rainfall events.

There is now two years of growth ahead to truly test the might of the wild mussels.