The name Iceland suggests a land of vast stretches of frozen terrain, but as a New Zealand company has found to its advantage, Iceland is a country of both ice and fire.
New Zealand Prawns Ltd runs the world’s only geothermal prawn farm just north of Taupo, using waste thermal water from the local geothermal power station to heat ponds in which thousands of tropical, freshwater prawns are bred and raised each year. Most of the prawns are sold through a 300-seat restaurant on the site, and it was there that the Iceland export connection began.
Back in 1999 an Icelandic couple who toured the farm and dined at the restaurant were so excited about the potential for using Iceland’s geothermal resource in a similar way, that they went home and interested government officials in the idea.
An official delegation flew to New Zealand to investigate, resulting in the formation of a joint venture agreement between the Icelandic government and New Zealand Prawns. The New Zealand company’s technology is now being used to establish a prawn hatchery in Iceland with staff from New Zealand Prawns visiting regularly to oversee the project.
Richard Klein, who owns and runs the New Zealand company, says having access to the wealth of scientific knowledge his company has built up over 17 years about breeding and growing prawns, means Iceland can leap frog its industry from basic to advanced.
“Iceland has large tracts of unused land and a huge natural geothermal resource. They really like being in a partnership with New Zealand because we’re at the opposite end of the world and share a similar commitment to environmentally sustainable development.”
It took around four years to navigate a wide range of regulatory and animal health requirements and clear the way for live prawns to be sent from Taupo to Iceland.
The next biggest challenge, Klein says, was finding a way to keep the prawns alive during the 50-hour journey to Iceland.
“The first consignments never made it because the temperature dropped too low or, in one case, because the prawns were accidentally left off the plane in Los Angeles,” say Klein.
A research project funded by the New Zealand government helped provide the solution. The prawns are transported in polystyrene bins filled with water, but just the right amount of air and prawns, as well as, crucially, a constant temperature in the aircraft cargo hold.
Through our research, and through finding airlines who understand what we need and are prepared to work with us, we are now achieving good survival rates,” says Klein.
Klein and his business partner, Terry Toomey, began their tropical prawn venture with five ponds covering one hectare of land. The ponds are filled with fresh water from the nearby Waikato River, but heated with hot water which has to be taken from the ground to capture the steam needed for geothermal power generation, but is then separated from the steam and becomes a waste product. Today the venture has expanded to include 19 ponds spread over six hectares of land.
New Zealand currently imports around 2000 tonnes of prawn product each year, mainly from Asia. “Most people don’t yet realise that New Zealand is able to produce its own, top quality, fresh, crisp prawns. There is significant potential to grow demand within New Zealand for our product,” Klein says.