In 2016, Kinkawooka Mussels joined forces with rival Boston Bay Mussels to form Eyre Peninsula (EP) Seafoods, which today is one of the largest mussel suppliers in Australia. EP Seafoods is now constructing a state-of-the-art factory to launch another innovation: pre-cooked packaged mussels that can be exported around the world.

A longline innovation

Andrew Puglisi, current Executive Director of EP Seafoods, joined the Puglisi family fishing business in the 1980s, working the family prawn trawler for 18 years and fishing tuna with his father for 13 years. In 2000 he met Andy Dyer, one of the original South Australian mussel farmers, and together they began a mussel-growing partnership, operating under the brand Kinkawooka Shellfish – Kinkawooka is an Aboriginal word for ‘good water’.

“The first system we used for growing mussels was the dropper system,” Puglisi explains, “where a five-metre-long piece of rope like a Christmas tree hangs in the water with a little weight on the end.” It’s a typical European method, used a lot in Italy and England, but the pair were interested in exploring other methods.

In 2004 they travelled to New Zealand to study the longline system of growing mussels, which they quickly adapted and perfected for their own use.

“The longline method has been very effective in keeping our labour costs down and giving us the ability to harvest large volumes of mussels in a short space of time,” Puglisi says. “A backbone rope, 30mm in diameter, sits on the surface with floats to keep it in place, then a longer, thinner rope is looped down eight metres and up again along the backbone, with fine filaments for the mussels to attach to. So, from a 100-metre long backbone, we can get 3,000 metres of growing line. It’s tremendously effective.”

In the first year using the dropper system, Dyer and Puglisi grew 58 tonnes of mussels. Today, using the longline method, they produce 2,000 tonnes.

From rivals to partners

In 2016 Kinkawooka decided to join forces with rival Boston Bay Mussels, forming a 50:50 partnership in EP Seafoods, to gain efficiencies and market share.

“We were fierce enemies for 10 years before the partnership,” Puglisi says. “We’d try and steal markets and customers off each other, all the usual tricks you do. [Yet] for people that wouldn't talk to each other on the wharf, much of our growing techniques were similar.”

The plan was to grow more mussels, decrease costs and dominate markets.

“We had a small factory here but together we had the ability to grow a lot more mussels and put it all through one bigger factory,” Puglisi says. “Which made a lot more sense because it would bring our costs down and we’d be more competitive in the marketplace.”

Today EP Seafoods has 36 employees and a factory that can clean, de-beard and pack two tonnes of mussels in an hour, enabling the factory’s entire output to be packed in a really short time.

“Everything we do is to make sure that our customers get the mussels on time,” Puglisi says. “The truck for the market leaves at 5 o’clock in the afternoon on a Monday, Tuesday and Friday. All of our activities from there revolve around getting a truck ready to leave at 5 o’clock.

“We strive to supply customers with mussels in the same pristine condition that we enjoy here in Port Lincoln.”

Another selling point for EP Seafoods’ mussels is that South Australian mussels have a sweet flavour compared to those on the eastern side of the country, Puglisi says, due to the nature and quality of the Eyre Peninsula water.

The partnership has more than doubled production. Under the brands Kinkawooka, Boston Bay and Spencer Golf, EP Seafoods produced 2,000 tonnes of mussels in 2017 and plans to produce 3,000 tonnes over the next three- to five-year period. The business sells domestically via all mainland capital cities and export 15 per cent of production to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Dubai.

From eskies to vacuum packs

The short shelf life of mussels means transport to reach broader markets has proven difficult. The challenge was how to increase shelf life and increase market share.

“Back when we first started,” Puglisi says, “you would harvest your mussels, singulate them on the boat and put them straight into a 15-kilo foam esky with a little bit of ice to transport through to the customer. Typically, the mussels would have a shelf life of about six to seven days. Being located in remote SA, we’re two to three days’ travel from any of our major markets – so that was the problem.”

Together with John Susman from Fish Tales marketing, Puglisi decided to embark on a trip to study European seafood best practices. There they discovered vacuum packaging, which almost doubles mussel shelf life.

“With this process, you’re able to clean the outside of the mussels first and, when sealed in the vacuum pack, it keeps the shells shut and the water inside the mussel,” Puglisi says. “A mussel holds about 15 to 20mls of salty water and if you can keep the water inside the shell, then the mussel’s got something to live on – oxygen and all the rest of it. By doing this, the mussel doesn’t lose its water and extends its shelf life by an extra 50 per cent, out to 10 days.”

They adapted the vacuum pack technology for their needs, using a combination of the Dutch process of gas flushing the mussels and the Spanish process of putting them in a tub and placing the vacuum on top, a method highly effective for keeping the mussels closed.

“The other benefit is that when the customer takes the package home, they don’t have to clean the mussels,” Puglisi points out. “They open the pack and pour them straight into the pot. It’s a really great idea because no one likes scrubbing mussels.”

Cooking the goods

In 2019 EP Seafoods will open a new production facility, which will act as a springboard for another innovation to open the door to exports.

“We’re working pretty hard right now to build a new packing facility to handle our volume of mussels,” Puglisi says. “Part of the issue we’ve got with our company is our product, it’s got such a short shelf life, even in the vacuum packs. Ten days shelf life is restrictive… to get the product anywhere in the world.”

The answer lies in pre-cooking.

“We’ve done a lot of work over the last 10 years to come up with a system of cooking the mussels inside the packet,” Puglisi says. “We put 500 grams of mussels into a vacuum pack; we put it through the system and we fully cook the mussels inside the packet. This gives it a shelf life of nine months, chilled.”

The cooked packaged product is already sold across Australia under the Kinkawooka, Boston Bay and De Costi Seafoods brands and the business has contracts in place in Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. Additionally, about 15 per cent of the total production is exported to Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Dubai.

Capacity in the new factory will give the business the ability to pack, store and grow many other creatures, such as cockles and oysters.

Puglisi is impatient to see the new facility open and the business enjoy further growth, but he’s pragmatic about the time this will take.

“At the moment, we've just got to walk before we run,” he says. “We’ve got to get the new factory up and running and make that a success.”

Friends of the sea

For more than six years, EP Seafoods has been a Friend of the Sea, a third-party accreditation system to confirm the business operates on a sustainable basis.

“Fishing in South Australia, and definitely throughout Australia, has evolved,” Puglisi says. “Everybody’s more than aware of tomorrow. It’s not about catching everything we can get and forgetting what we’re going to do in the future. Everyone’s trying to make sure we fish together, that we’re fishing for tomorrow.”

NAB backing

EP Seafoods attributes much of its success to a long relationship with NAB, which has given Puglisi confidence in the business’s plans for growth.

“NAB’s been huge in the whole scheme of things,” he says. “It’s a partnership that I’ve had, with Kinkawooka, for probably close to 35 years.

“Having NAB involved has been pivotal for us to move forward with our new facility. They’ve really helped take the company to where it actually is today.”

“I’m really excited where this company’s going,” Puglisi adds. “It’s really exciting to see where we’ll go in the next four to five years. We’re looking at turning a profitable business into a global company.”

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