Hagen Stehr, founder of aquaculture business Clean Seas Tuna, is sometimes called a fishing magnate, an entrepreneur, an inventor, but he describes himself as just a fisherman. But this just doesn’t square up with the fact that Time Magazine named his invention the second best of the year in 2009 behind NASA’s Ares 1 rocket.
The Hagen Stehr story out of Port Lincoln in South Australia is the stuff legends are made of – a tale of passion, self-belief and an intimate knowledge of his industry.
“Some people call me an entrepreneur. That’s just nonsense, I’m just a fisherman,” he insists. “I’ve been in this business for 49 years and I like to think that I know a little bit.
“I’m from one of the major tuna families out of Port Lincoln and I think we knew our business certainly a lot more than scientists do and many people said to us ‘it can’t be done’ but I’ve got a stubborn German background.”
Stehr’s adventure has included everything from time in the French Foreign Legion to a life at sea with the German merchant navy, before jumping ship in Port Lincoln and marrying Anna, now his wife of 49 years. And that’s how he wound up in tuna fishing.
Port Lincoln is the home of the southern bluefin tuna and has spawned many legendary figures. There was Dean Lukin, the fishing trawler gold medallist weight lifter from the LA Olympics. Then Tony Santic, who owned Makybe Diva, the horse that took out three Melbourne Cups on a trot. It had never been done before.
What Hagen Stehr and his Clean Seas Tuna are doing, in propagating the bluefin tuna in a land-based tank, has also never been done before. And it’s working for the company which listed in late 2005.
Tuna on tap
In a world where quotas are threatening the tuna fishing business, this home-grown invention could effectively put tuna on tap.
“We’ve kept tuna over the last 11 years now in our sea pen off Port Lincoln and the science community around the world thought it was an impossibility,” he explains. “They said you could not keep tuna longer than maybe six or eight months but we proved you could.
“We’ve had a number of firsts in our organisation over the last few years – we proved that you can keep tuna for ten years and we fought against white pointers, shark attacks, seals, disease problems, bad weather conditions and we kept all the fish through.”
The aquaculture business complements the wild fishing business but represents a passionate entrepreneurial response to the threats of quotas and low stocks of a product whose potential is only now being realised.
Stehr’s ultimate goal was to close the life cycle of tuna in captivity, speeding up the growth process, and it has culminated in a land-based facility that has the technology to replicate the conditions of the tuna schools as they travel around the coastline of South Australia and then up the Western Australian coast.
So how did a fisherman, or let’s ignore Stehr’s self-deprecation and call him an entrepreneur, confound the scientists?
“We just kept on going and I was in the water everyday and it took a lot of money because to protect tuna is very, very hard,” he says. “We had shark attacks and tuna disappearing but we learnt fish husbandry practices over a period of time and we became better and better at it.
“I got a team of people together, working for two years, who sort of helped us out.”
When it comes to entrepreneurs they often see opportunity when others can see only threats and this is a part of the Stehr story.
“Port Lincoln was virtually broke in the early 1990’s and right now it’s fairly hard going but between the 1960s and the 1980s we caught that much tuna that the tuna stocks were becoming rundown,” he explains. “That’s when I came up with ideas from my frequent travels overseas and I said, ‘hey maybe tuna farming, maybe tuna propagation is the way to go’.”
The first successful tuna farm in the world was established at Stehr’s facility in Port Lincoln. The major fishing families of the town came together with their shared cash and worked out what could be done.
“I thought it would never work – tuna farming, catching fish from 12 to 15 to 20 kilograms and then growing them up for six to eight months and then selling them to the Japanese or whoever,” he recalls.
“We found [the farming] worked well and the next step was to close the lifecycle of tuna.”
The invention was trial and error and Stehr says they nearly went broke with some big losses (amid some wins) along the way. However, like many entrepreneurs hell-bent on success, he looked for partners with expertise to give him a competitive advantage.
“We developed our technology with our Japanese partners, the Kinki University, which has been doing it now for 35 years but they didn’t do it offshore,” he says. There was also local government help.
“The first four-and-a-half years we got four-and-a-half million dollars from government bodies,” Stehr points out. “We worked closely together with the CSI Fisheries Research and Development Corporation in Canberra who tries to help us in regards to science and everything else like that. We’ve got together a group of the best scientists in the world and the government helps us a little bit.”
Assistance also came from the Department of Trade and Economic Development of South Australia.
Stehr said the Americans tried and failed to breed tuna and the Japanese wouldn’t even try at all. Meanwhile, the Europeans spent around 70 million Euros on it and couldn’t do it.
“I went from one factory to another factory around the world and we brought a team of people together who built a complex in Port Lincoln right on the water,” he explains. “Then [we] thought ‘how are we going to get big tuna from this ocean into our onshore facility?’”
Eventually he called on some of his ex-Vietnam chopper pilot buddies to help. One guy was so good he puts heads on statues in America in his helicopter.
“I said listen guys we’ve got to bring live creatures on shore and we have to lift the tuna out from two, three miles out at sea and bring them ashore,” he reveals. “Of course, we’ve done something to the tuna. It’s intellectual property which I can’t tell you but we lifted them out like an army-style operation.”
Outside the square
The brilliance of Stehr’s technology was that it confounded the scientists. They said you would have to keep them for at least three years to make them totally relaxed to spawn but they did it in three months.
The fish are taken out to sea, about 200 miles south of Port Lincoln, and then are taken west outside the continental shelf into streams that run west and east. They then round the coast at the bottom end of Australia and then turn the fish north and go slowly from latitude to latitude north past Fremantle, Geraldton and Broome up to the spawning area.
Then, slowly, they bring the fish back down the Western Australian coast. They then turn the fish east and bring them all the way back to Port Lincoln. The biggest shock, however, is the fish never leave the tank the whole time. They replicate the journey of the fish onshore, mimicking different temperatures and seas all from within their facility.
The scientific puzzle was finally solved in 2009 and 2010 was the first year of the breeding program. Clean Seas plans to produce 10,000 tonnes of fish by 2015.
Like most founders, Stehr managed everything until the company was listed. Now as a director, he’s still very hands on with the technology development.
The company started 10 years ago but, as funding requirements became crucial, the operation went public. Stehr says it is a necessary evil but he gets frustrated at the paperwork and corporate governance that goes with being a public company.
Asked what made it all happen, he pointed to his disdain for the word ‘can’t’.
“A lot of people called me an arrogant bastard but I always though that it was a full-blown conclusion and that it was only a matter of time,” he says. “The rest of the world said ‘it can’t be done’ but we just kept on going.
“You’ve got to have deep pockets, you’ve got to be little bit sick in the head, strong in the back and you have to have an absolute belief in yourself and, really, you can’t say ‘can’t’ – the word ‘can’t’ should be eradicated out of the English dictionary.”