Cellular agriculture could be the answer to the world's deadly appetite for eel meat.
"While it's early days yet, the technology is exciting and worth pursuing," Mahurangi Technical Institute founder Paul Decker said.
Also known as 'clean meat', or lab meat, the technology sees animal meat able to be grown in fermentation tanks rather than raising an animal for slaughter.
Just a single gram of cells taken from a live animal is able to be grown on to produce 10,000 kilograms of meat, agritech specialist Dr Rosie Bosworth said.
Concerns with overfishing, rising contaminants like mercury in some fish, and aquaculture like finfish farming also creating environmental problems, Bosworth sees the technology as a way to provide sustainable fish protein and take pressure off wild stocks.
Start-up Finless Foods in San Francisco have targeted bluefin tuna as the first fish species whose flesh they are replicating in the lab. Heavily fished the Atlantic, bluefin tuna is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Pacific bluefin tuna as threatened, and Southern bluefin tuna - the species found most often in New Zealand waters - as critically endangered.
Decker also sees the technology as a conservation tool.
A knowledge gap in fresh water fish conservation saw Decker set up the Warkworth-based institute, which specialises in native fish research. His aim was to save species by learning how to breed them, so they could be farmed commercially.
They have had success with white bait species - giant kōkopu which was being bred commercially New Zealand Premium Whitebait in a closed loop. The company had been producing around 5000 kilograms of the juvenile fish annually.
But with the company going into receivership earlier this month, it is perhaps a cautionary tale for start-up cellular agriculture companies over the risks associated with new technology.
Success in breeding eels at Mahurangi Technical Institutes Warkworth facility has remained elusive.
Slow growing, long lived, and unlike any other exploited fish species, only breeding once – at the end of their lives, eels are particularly vulnerable.
Of real concern for protection of the various eel species globally are current commercial farming models. All rely on catching and growing on young wild stock.
This has seen wild eel numbers plummet by 95 per cent in the last 30 years and now sees the European eel listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, and the Japanese eel and American eel listed as endangered.
In New Zealand our only endemic eel, the longfin, is classified by the Department of Conservation as "At Risk - Declining"
Another concern has come with changing ocean temperatures and currents due to climate change. Eels in New Zealand swim a vast distance to New Caledonia and Vanuatu to spawn and then die. Larvae are carried back on ocean currents, taking up to 18 months to return to the New Zealand coastline.
European and American eels swim to the Sargasso Sea off the United States to spawn and die.
While southern currents are moving faster as the southern gyre in the South Pacific strengthens, ocean currents in the northern Atlantic are weakening as more fresh water from melting Greenland glaciers disrupts the flows.
How these changes will affect eel's ability to reach their spawning grounds and the youngster's ability to ride the currents home, are unknown.
As with Māori, the eel has a special place in Japanese culture where around 80 per cent of eel produced globally is eaten. Mostly grown in China, high costs may be behind declining Japanese consumption in the last few years. But with more interest in Japanese style food in China, consumption is increasing there.
While it will need to be commercially viable, the possibility cellular agriculture could save endangered animals like eels is very positive and should be pursued, Decker said.