One of Australia’s most in-demand bush foods could be boosted by robotics and artificial intelligence.
- Two mechanical engineers hope to increase marron production from 60 to 500 tonnes a year
- They are trialling growing marron in modular indoor farming systems, using artificial intelligence
- Their company, Aquatic AI, is first focusing on sustainable feed
Western Australia’s endemic marron, a large freshwater crayfish, is in high demand in fine-dining restaurants all over the world.
But production has been capped unintentionally for more than a decade at around 60 tonnes a year.
Robots raising marron
Mechanical engineers Andrew Walker and Michael Story hope they can grow production to around 500 tonnes a year with an intensive vertical farming system using robotics and AI.
With a $400,000 Australian research and development grant they are trialling growing the crustaceans in small containers in a modular indoor farming system.
“Having a marron in every tank is a bit more labour-intensive than the traditional systems, but they are also [grown] in a way that is way more automatable,” Mr Story said.
“It’s in a predictable box, the marron is going to be in a predictable spot, so robots come in really well into that equation.”
The AI-grown marron’s growth rates and meat quality are comparable with conventionally farmed marron.(ABC Landline)
Their company, Aquatic AI, is first focusing on marron biology and feed. Marron are detritivores, which means they eat rotting plant and animal matter in rivers and dams. The company has been trialling a range of fresh and pelletised rations.
“One of the big things we’ve known for a while is the interaction between what you put into the water, the feed and the water, and the environment itself,” Mr Walker said.
“A big part of what feeds them in a pond is what’s growing in the pond. So we’re definitely looking at both what we’re putting into a tank and then what happens within the tank after you put it in.”
Natural versus intensive indoor farming
The reaction across the industry has been mixed.
Peter McGinty, a partner in Blue Ridge, the state’s biggest supplier of fresh marron, said the industry was keen to grow its market but not at the expense of marron’s reputation as a naturally grown product.
“People these days really want to know the story behind their food,” he said.
“They’re not interested in robotic foods. They’re not interested in sort of high-density growing or feedlot growing. It’s all about being at one with nature and supplying a product that is pretty much grown in its natural environment.”
At Capel in the south west, Jordan Parker produces 6 to 8 tonnes of marron a year.
With his business partner Scott Bell, they are investing $5 million in expanding their farm and building the state’s first marron hatchery, a feed manufacturing plant, and a tourism retail outlet.
Mr Parker said the potential for robotics in the industry was exciting.
“It’s great to see people in the industry pushing forward and trying to make radical innovations,” he said.
“That’s exactly what we need — to get it from a cottage industry to that really next level where we can satisfy those international markets and obviously the markets right here at our doorstep.”
At Sydney’s three-hatted Quay restaurant, chef Peter Gilmore has had marron on the menu for more than 20 years. He said his fine-dining customers liked the provenance of a dish that was endemic and came from a beautiful natural environment.
“For me, these things live in the freshwater, they live in the dams, they get to forage, they get to, you know, swim around in the mud and exercise,” Mr Gilmore said.
He said part of marron’s appeal was that it was hard to get.
“If marron becomes so commercialised that you can buy them in the supermarket, they probably won’t be on our menus.”
AI seafood production
Aquatic AI is now seeking investors to step up its research, believing consumers will appreciate a cheaper, sustainably grown product.
“We actually have a lot more traceability than we do on a farm because we know where every single marron is at any single point in time,” Mr Story said.
“So in some ways, we have more provenance of kind of ancestral lines and things like that.”
Mr Walker said marron were vulnerable to predators and other larger marron in conventionally run farm dams. The company would have a good story for consumers by focusing on feed that was sustainable.
“We’re trying to feed marron the most ethically sourced feed we can get and move away from serving up fishmeal and that sort of thing, which can be problematic in aquaculture in general,” he said.
He said the company hoped to lay the groundwork for robotics and AI to be used to grow other seafood species.
“So potentially crabs, potentially abalone and things like that, obviously less so if you’re talking about finfish or something that really needs to swim but anything where interaction with others can be problematic would be a good opportunity for us,” Mr Walker said.