After losing nearly all his fish stock in Tropical Cyclone Larry in 2006, Peter Whiddett of Tarzali Lakes holds a similar philosophy to the eels he now farms – never say die.

Story By Carly Crummey

It's Sunday and Peter Whiddett’s only day off. As the co-owner and manager of Tarzali Lakes Aquaculture Centre on North Queensland’s lush Atherton Tableland, he has been up until the early hours doing bookwork and replying to the juggernaut of emails that roll in. He is now taking a few quiet moments to collect himself with a coffee before he tells, in his fast-paced tone, how tough the past four years have been, but how new opportunities were spawned from the devastation. “It’s not like cattle farming where you buy or breed your stock and can sell it a few years later,” Peter says. “When we decided to get into aquaculture 12 years ago it took about a year to get all the approvals, then we got our stock in the form of microscopic fish. By the time they had grown big enough and we found a market, Cyclone Larry came and nearly wiped us out. It’s now taken us three-and-a-half years to get back to where we were and keep up with supply, and we are really starting to ramp up.”
Tarzali Lakes is one of three eel farms in the region and is getting ready to make its first shipment of live longfin eels to the Asian market to take advantage of the drastically under-satisfied global hunger for the product. “At the moment they reckon the global demand for eel is about 800,000 tonnes,” the gregarious Peter says, handling a net full of the slippery creatures in one of the 16-hectare property’s concrete ponds. “But between all the producing countries I think we only get to 2000 tonnes, so there is a bit of a shortfall,” he says. “Hopefully by the time we are ready to ship the price should be up to $26-$28 a kilo, but for the Chinese, the bigger the eel the better. We are told for anything above six kilograms you can pretty much name your price.”
It’s for this reason that female longfin eels are much more desirable as they can weigh up to 12-14 kilograms at 1.5 metres long, but males only reach half a metre. One of the biggest outgoings is feeding the animals, which need a rich meat and fish meal diet at $3000 a tonne. The other major challenge is that eels don’t breed in captivity and there’s a limit to how many can be sourced from estuary environments each year. “Eels breed in saltwater but live in freshwater, and their spawn are carried into estuaries where they develop into glass eels,” Peter says. “We get them when they are the thickness of a human hair and grow them to the size of a pencil, then we grade them each month and put them into separate ponds. Because they aren’t grown in a hatchery and no one has succeeded in breeding them in captivity, the numbers aren’t reliable so if the world has a crappy season there can be a global shortage.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #72

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2010