• Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
    Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
  • Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
    Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
  • Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
    Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
  • Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
    Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
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Stanbridge sits in the middle of the Riverina region of New South Wales, roughly between the towns of Whitton and Leeton. While its official population is around 204, there’s a fair bit of activity now with Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod constructing a $20 million project featuring 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod.

The project is an expansion on its original operations that began in 2011, when local wheat and sheep farmer, Mat Ryan, wanted to move out of commodities into a product that had growing demand and shrinking supply.

Ryan dug a pond on a property in Bilbul, just out of Griffith, and set about farming Murray Cod.

Fast forward to 2024 and the operation now has 50 grow out ponds, three hatcheries, and around 90 staff, with 15 of the ponds at Stanbridge already online.

CEO Ross Anderson said plans for Aquna are ambitious, with the goal to be producing 10,000 tonnes by 2030.

“The world seafood market is 155 million tonnes, and about 120 million tonnes of that is fish. A little bit more than half of that number is farmed aquaculture fish.

“When most of us think of aquaculture we think of large cages in the ocean, but of those 60 million tonnes, 85 per cent are grown on land. It’s the most sustainable and successful way of growing fish without hurting the environment,” Anderson said.

The early success came from how good the fish tasted. Local diners and celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal struggled to believe it was a freshwater fish, let alone a “muddy” Murray cod.

Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
(Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)

Anderson said he was also dubious of Ryan’s project.

“Every other native fish farmer I’d met had produced a poor-quality product, with poor running of fish health, and fish escaping. You need diligence and the science of growing fish. Which when you eat the fish, you know Ryan has.

“Here we are with an endangered species that doesn’t grow anywhere else except the Murray River and no one else growing it. Matt’s due diligence grew high quality eating fish with fairly low labour content in a way that was very scalable.

“This is a national icon that needs to be taken to the world,” Anderson said. 

From one pond to many

Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod is constructing a $20 million project with 78 free range ponds to farm Murray cod in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)
Aquna's new site in Stanbridge, New South Wales. (Source: Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod)

From the earliest of days, Aquna was built upon the four pillars of quality, innovation, integrity, and sustainability, which have guided the company’s R&D and expansion.

The Murray cod’s “muddy” reputation came from the fact it is a bottom dwelling fish. The original ponds were 5 metres deep with netting at around two metres, to stop the fish from settling on the bottom. But some fish still had a muddy taste.

The team started a regime of testing, which was frustratingly sabotaged by inexplicable holes appearing in the nets. It meant fish could then head straight to the bottom of the pond. But the confluence of events ended up solving the “still muddy” mystery.

The flavour of the fish was related to the water quality and the presence of particular forms of algae and other compounds.

“The netting was costing us $300,000 per pond, whereas now we have a net over the whole pond and the fish can swim freely,” he said.  

The waygu of fish

In 2021, it began a project with CSIRO to develop a selective breeding program, which Anderson said is showing some positive early findings.

Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod
Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod

“The initial results from this program show significant differences in growth rates amongst family lines that have undergone genetic evaluation. The average weights of the fastest growing family groups were 80 per cent greater than those of the slowest growing family groups at the same age, reared under the same conditions. 

“These initial results highlight exploitable genetic variation within our broodstock population, allowing us to identify broodstock with superior genetic merit for immediate use in our breeding program and for commercial production. The results are very encouraging for the ongoing success of the project,” he said

Again, these things take time - it took almost two years to identify all the family groups.

The interim goal is to develop a faster growing fish with optimal health outcomes, creamier white flesh and a better fillet yield. The long-term aim is to develop a genetically specific Murray cod.

“It will be the fish equivalent to wagyu and unique to Aquna,” Anderson said. 

Murray cod take their time to grow – around one kilogram a year. When Covid struck less fish were put in the ponds because restaurants and export markets where in short supply and Aquna has been playing catch-up ever since.

But with Stanbridge coming online and heavy stocking in the hatcheries and grow out ponds, Anderson said supply will increase substantially and over the next 18 months and bring the company to cash flow positive.

“We have basically perfected our production systems, and getting those right was critical. Now it is about building scale. Our recent capital raise is helping with that.”

Aquna Gold, Murray Cod Caviar
Aquna Gold, Murray Cod Caviar

In May, the company announced a capital raise that brought just over $20 million into the kitty.

September will also see the return of Aquna Gold, Murray Cod Caviar (a finalist in this year’s Hive Awards for Best NPD). With fish stock in short supply, taking female fish out to grow caviar became hard to justify. But with stocks on the rise, the roe – tiny translucent gold spheres – will make a reappearance.

Listen to the Food & Drink Business Podcast episode with Aquna CEO Ross Anderson and chef Luke Piccolo.

 

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