Cawthron Institute

The Cawthron Institute is New Zealand's largest independent science organisation, specialising in science that supports the environment and development within primary industries. Cawthron has its main facilities in Nelson. It works with regional councils, government departments, major industries, private companies, and other research organisations throughout New Zealand and around the world. Cawthron employs approximately 300 scientists, laboratory technicians, researchers and specialist staff from 26 countries.[1] It has both chemistry and microbiology labs, and has a major focus on food related testing for food safety and export certification. Cawthron holds IANZ accreditation for a wide range of tests. Its scientists include experts in aquaculture, marine and freshwater resources, food safety and quality, algal technologies, biosecurity and analytical testing.


Thomas Hill Easterfield c. 1926.


Nelson businessman and philanthropist Thomas Cawthron made substantial contributions to the Nelson community. When he died in 1915 he left £231,000, the bulk of his estate, for the creation of a "industrial and technical school institute and museum to be called the Cawthron Institute".[2] Seven local public officials were appointed as trustees to execute his will, and they in turn set up an advisory commission (four prominent scientists plus the chairman of the Board of Agriculture).[3] The commission's report in 1916, which was adopted by the trustees, set out the principles for such an institute. In 1917, the New Zealand government insisted that £40,000 in stamp duty was owed on the bequest; this decision was disputed and was subject to repeated legal challenges over the following 18 years.[4] Thomas Easterfield, the founder and head of the Chemistry Department at VIctoria University, was appointed in 1919 as the Cawthron Institute's first director and the first staff member hired.[5]


Sir Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Easterfield on the balcony of Cawthron Institute, 1925

Fellworth House was purchased in 1920 as the Institute's temporary premises.[6] It remained the home of Cawthron Institute for the following fifty years. On 21 April 1921, the institute was officially opened by New Zealand's Governor General, Lord Jellicoe.[7] The Thomas Cawthron Trust Act 1924, formally establishing the Cawthron Institute Trust Board, came into force in early 1925.[8] That year saw a visit by Ernest Rutherford who presented the Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture.[9]

Robin J. Tillyard

In 1920, Robin Tillyard was appointed chief of the department of biology at Cawthron, and his 1926 book Insects of Australia and New Zealand became a reference for many decades.[10] In 1927, Tillyard, then Assistant Director, left Cawthron to take up the position of chief of the Entomology Division at the CSIR, Australia.[11]


Foundation staff member Theodore Rigg was appointed director of a DSIR survey of volcanic ash soils in central North Island.[12][13] Thomas Easterfield retired in 1933 and Rigg became Director. Finally, in 1936, the government approved compensation for the £40,000 death duties paid in 1917: an annual subsidy of £2000 for entomological, fruit, soil and tobacco research.[14]

In 1936, Cawthron scientists confirmed cobalt deficiency as the cause of “bush sickness” in New Zealand.[15] The Cawthron Institute Trust Board Rating Exemption Act 1937 was enacted, granting the Cawthron Institute freedom from paying local rates.[16] In that year, the Entomological Branch of the Department of Agriculture was transferred to Nelson: a joint venture between the DSIR and Cawthron.

Sir Theodore Rigg

Theodore Rigg was knighted in 1937 for his services to New Zealand.[17] In 1938, Thomas Easterfield also received a knighthood.[18]


The Knapp Collection of Māori taonga, comprising more than 8000 artifacts and the largest private collection in New Zealand, was bequeathed in 1940 to the Cawthron's museum.[19] A Silver Jubilee commemorated 25 years of Cawthron's operation.

Cawthron's soil science activities including the National Soil Survey were relocated to the DSIR Soil Bureau, Wellington, along with staff.


This was a difficult decade for Cawthron. All entomology activities and collections were transferred to the DSIR Entomology Division, Auckland in 1956.[20] That same year Sir Theodore Rigg retired, and David Miller assumed the role of Director.[21] Cawthron's Department of Mycology was transferred to the DSIR Plant Diseases Division, along with the reference collections and library.[22] In 1959, Miller retired as Director and was replaced by C. R. Barnicoat, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Massey Agricultural College.[23]


Fellworth House, Nelson, home to the Cawthron Institute 1920–1970

To address long standing concerns about a lack of scientific expertise on the Cawthron Instuture Trust Board, the Cawthron Institute Trust Act 1924 was amended to enable 3 additional trustees with scientific backgrounds to be added to the board by the Minister of Science.[24] In 1967, Barnicoat retired as Director. and was replaced in 1968 by E. B. (Barrie) Cousins, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Otago.[25][26]

The Chemical Services Group was established under the leadership of Alan Cooke, for the first time offering commercial chemical and microbiological analyses. This provided an important source of revenue over the next decade.[27]


The decade began with the opening of new laboratories and offices (now named the Rigg building) by Governor-General Sir Arthur Porritt.[28] Celebrations were marred by the sudden death of Director Barrie Cousins a few days before. Royd Thornton, manager of the DSIR's Agriculture and Biology Group, was appointed Director in 1971.[29] In 1972, the national accreditation body TELARC was created, enabling other laboratories to gain accreditation and compete with Cawthron's highly regarded analytical laboratories.[30] The Cawthron Museum was closed in 1976 and its contents redistributed to the Nelson Provincial Museum, other organisations, and the general public.

An Environmental and Feasibility Services group was established in 1976, offering commercial consultant services.[31] The move from Fellworth House was completed in 1977 and the property sold.


The Cawthron Institute today

The 1980s were a difficult decade for the Cawthron's finances; the Environmental and Feasibility Services group was shut down in 1984 after proving unprofitable.[32] In 1987, Royd Thornton retired.[33] Staff numbers declined to 33, from a decade peak of 74. Graeme Robertson, a chemical engineer with a background in the pulp and paper industry, was named Chief Executive Officer in 1988. He appointed senior Cawthron scientist Henry Kaspar as Research Leader.[34]


A bipartisan agreement in 1990 led to a major restructuring of New Zealand's science system: the separation of policy, funding, and operations, and the creation of MoRST and FRST. This introduced competitive bidding for government funded research programmes.[35] The Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture series was restarted in 1990 after a 10-year hiatus.[36] In 1992, Government research in MAFDSIR, and Forestry was restructured into Crown Research Institutes.

Cawthron Aquaculture Park entrance

In the summer of 1992–93 the first harmful algae bloom to close marine farms and create widespread public attention sparked interest in marine biotoxins.[37][38] The Glenhaven Aquaculture Centre Ltd, now known as the Cawthron Aquaculture Park, was formed in 1993 as a joint venture with landowners, and a small research facility was built on the site of a former oyster hatchery.

Cawthron's Culture Collection of Micro-Algae was registered in 1996 as a nationally significant living collection. That year the New Zealand aquaculture industry introduced regular phytoplankton monitoring of harvest areas as an early warning of the presence of toxic algae. In 1998, a new office building known as the Easterfield Wing was opened by the Minister of Science, Maurice Williamson. Cawthron hosted the first national workshop on marine biosecurity in 1999.


HABTech 2000, an international workshop on technology for the monitoring of harmful algal blooms and biotoxins, was launched by Cawthron.[39] That year LC-MS chemical analysis methods developed by Cawthron were introduced for routine marine biotoxin monitoring of farmed shellfish throughout New Zealand.[40] Graeme Robertson resigned as CEO in 2005 and was replaced in 2006 by Gillian Wratt.


Charles Eason joined the Cawthron Institute as CEO in June 2012.[41]


Charles Eason stepped down as CEO of the Cawthron Institute in December 2020, and was replaced by Volker Kuntzsch in March 2021.[42]

Staff numbers

Current research

Cawthron has a number of research programmes supported by various government contestable funds, in particular the Endeavour Fund,[43] focused in the following areas:

Seafood sector

An international team led by Cawthron is developing farming systems enabling multiple shellfish species to be grown in open ocean sites, with sustainable production efficiencies and maintenance costs.[44][45][46][47] Research is underway to increase the sustainability and efficiency of the wild scampi capture fishery and explore new techniques for a land-based production of this high-value species.[48] A study of the factors influencing the feed conversion efficiency of farmed Chinook salmon aims to improve husbandry, health and fish quality, while reducing environmental impacts.[49][50]

Cawthron currently receives $5M annually as "capability funding" from the New Zealand Government's Strategic Science Investment Fund[51] for 2 science platforms.[52] The Shellfish Aquaculture Platform[53] aims to enhance the sustainable growth of New Zealand's shellfish aquaculture industry through reliable seed supply, improved genetics, precision farming methods, new products and species and improved shellfish health.

The Seafood Safety Platform[54][55] is led by Cawthron in partnership with AgResearch, Plant and Food Research and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, to safeguard New Zealand's seafood export industry. It builds on relationships between researchers, regulators and the seafood sector. The research covers factors that drive harmful algal bloom events, molecular technologies for detection, marine biotoxin analysis, and threats from pathogenic bacteria and viruses.[56]

Emerging organic contaminants pose a risk to New Zealand aquatic ecosystems, have the potential to induce antimicrobial resistance and may be present in food. Cawthron scientists lead a research programme to enhance management of these risks, in partnership with other science providers,[57][58] iwi, key community stakeholders, environmental managers and policy makers.[59]

Marine bioactives and nutrition

In a programme funded through the government's "High Value Nutrition" National Science Challenge,[60] Cawthron and Sanford Limited[61] have joined forces to identify and validate the health benefits of Greenshell mussels. The programme will assist the development of high value functional food products.[62]

To tap into the growing interest worldwide in pharmaceuticals based on natural compounds of algal origin, a new programme “Natural compound manipulation for therapeutic applications” began in 2019.[63] This builds on Cawthron's long experience in algae research and the extraction of bioactive compounds, the Cawthron Institute Culture Collection of Microalgae[64] and the new National Algae Research Centre.[65][66]

Freshwater ecosystem health

LAWA, "Land Air Water Aotearoa",[67] a partnership between Regional Councils, Cawthron Institute and the Ministry for the Environment , is one of New Zealand's largest environmental online data platforms, connecting New Zealanders with their environment through sharing scientific data.[68][69][70]

Lakes380, "Our lakes’ health: past, present and future"[71] an international effort jointly led by GNS Science and Cawthron Institute, aims to obtain a nationwide health overview for 10% of New Zealand's 3800 lakes. As well as characterising present biodiversity and water quality, the team[72] is exploring how and why the lakes have changed over the past 1000 years by collecting and analysing sediment cores. The information is interwoven with traditional Māori knowledge to provide a richer understanding about the value and health of New Zealand's lakes, as well as the impact of natural and human activity.[73][74][75]

The health of our oceans

In a new research programme[76] Cawthron leads a multidisciplinary team to develop a new “marine biosecurity toolbox”. Their aim is to prevent marine pests getting a foothold by developing molecular tools to detect them at low densities, and with simulation models assist managers achieve better resource allocation. The project team has participants from over 20 organisations: government, Maori, industry, and education providers.

The design and synthesis of a “smart” antifouling biocide is the aim of another project.[77] Antifouling compounds must be potent against problematic biofouling organisms when applied to artificial surfaces in the sea but benign against marine life if released into the environment, as well as cost-effective to synthesize at an industrial scale.

Knowledge and toolsets to support co-management of estuaries "Manaaki Taha Moana: Oranga Taiao, Oranga Tangata". Retrieved 20 February 2020.

Cawthron Aquaculture Park

This national centre for shellfish aquaculture research began in 1993 as a collection of recycled huts and a tunnel house.  Earlier decades had seen many unsuccessful attempts by New Zealand scientists to grow Greenshell mussels in a hatchery.  A government-backed research project provided the funding for a small research hatchery and success was achieved in 1999.[78]  Eighteen years later, a new company, SPATnz Ltd, was formed by three major mussel producers to breed Greenshell mussels on a commercial scale.[79]

Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lectures

The tradition of an annual public lecture to commemorate Thomas Cawthron began in 1917 and continues today. The first in the series was "The aims and ideals of the Cawthron Institute" by Thomas Easterfield, one of the founding professors of Victoria University and soon to be appointed Cawthron Institute's first Director.[80] Two years later the third lecture was delivered by notable New Zealand botanist Leonard Cockayne.[81] Other lecturers include Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) on "The Coming of the Māori" (1925),[82] Ernest Lord Rutherford ( "Electricity and Matter" (1928)[83] and Sir Howard Florey "Penicillin" (1944).[84] Not all were about science, for example Sir Edmund Hillary on "The New Zealand Antarctic Expedition" (1958).[85] The list includes several Governors-General: Lord Bledisloe (1932),[86] Viscount Cobham (1960),[87] Dame Catherine Tizard (1991),[88] as well as the scientist and former Governor of South Australia Sir Mark Oliphant (1992).[89]

The 76th Lecture[90] was delivered in 2019 by Professor Gideon Henderson of Oxford University: "Taking it back: removal of CO2 from the atmosphere to limit climate change" after an opening lecture by Cawthron's Dr Susie Wood on the "Lakes 380" project.[91]

Most of the lectures are available from the Cawthron website in pdf format[92] or, since 2013, as video recordings.

See also



  1. "Annual Report". Cawthron Institute. 2019.
  2. Miller, David (1963). Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute. Nelson, New Zealand: Cawthron Institute. p. 78.
  3. MacKay, Deidre (2011). An Appetite for Wonder. Nelson, New Zealand: Cawthron Institute. pp. 18–29. ISBN 978-0-473-19588-5.
  4. Miller 1963, p. 84.
  5. MacKay 2011, p. 35.
  6. "History of Fellworth House". Fellworth House. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  7. MacKay 2011, p. 36.
  8. Miller 1963, p. 80.
  9. MacKay 2011, p. 37.
  10. Tillyard, Robin (1926). "Insects of Australia and New Zealand". National Library of New Zealand. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  11. MacKay 2011, p. 50.
  12. MacKay 2011, p. 58.
  13. Hughes, Helen (2005). A Quaker Scientist - The Life of Theodore Rigg KBE, Quaker Historic Manuscript No. 10. Nelson, New Zealand: Society of Friends. p. 75. ISBN 0-473-10743-0.
  14. Miller 1963, p. 85.
  15. Hughes 2005, p. 74.
  16. "Cawthron Institute Trust Board Rating Exemption Act 1937". New Zealand Legislation. 12 December 1937. Retrieved 6 April 2020.
  17. Hughes 2005, p. 89.
  18. MacKay 2011, p. 61.
  19. "Annual Report". Cawthron Institute Trust Board. 1940.
  20. MacKay 2011, p. 85.
  21. MacKay 2011, p. 83.
  22. MacKay 2011, p. 87.
  23. MacKay 2011, p. 86.
  24. MacKay 2011, p. 101.
  25. MacKay 2011, p. 103.
  26. MacKay 2011, p. 105.
  27. MacKay 2011, p. 108.
  28. MacKay 2011, p. 113.
  29. MacKay 2011, p. 116.
  30. "History of IANZ/TELARC". IANZ. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  31. MacKay 2011, p. 125.
  32. MacKay 2011, p. 127.
  33. MacKay 2011, p. 130.
  34. MacKay 2011, p. 131.
  35. "A History of Government-funded Science from 1865-2009" (PDF). McGuinness Institute Project 2058. Report 9a. 2009. Retrieved 14 March 2020.
  36. "Annual Report". Cawthron Institute Trust Board. 1990.
  37. Gooneratne, Ravi (10 September 1993). "The Shellfish Toxicity Crisis - Many Lessons for the Future". Living Heritage - Lincoln University. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
  38. Rhodes, Lesley; Mackenzie, Lincoln; Kaspar, Henry; Todd, Kirsten (2001). "Harmful algae and mariculture in New Zealand". ICES Journal of Marine Science. 58: 398–403.
  39. Garthwaite, Ian (2000). "A view from New Zealand". Harmful Algae News. 20: 3.
  40. "Monitoring shellfish". Science Learning Hub. 4 September 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
  41. "Charles Eason". Cawthron Institute. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
  42. Bohny, Skara (3 February 2021). "Cawthron Institute's next top dog announced". Nelson Mail. Retrieved 4 February 2021.
  43. "Endeavour Fund | Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  44. Neal, Tracy (23 January 2017). "Work begins to develop open-ocean marine farms". Radio New Zealand. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  45. "Cawthron Institute: Research Enabling Open Ocean Aquaculture". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  46. Meij, Sara (3 October 2016). "Open ocean farming project set to boost New Zealand exports". Stuff. Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  47. Watson, Mike (23 January 2017). "Shellfish farming research team visits Marlborough Sounds". Stuff. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  48. "Cawthron Institute: Research Ka Hao te Rangatahi". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  49. "Cawthron Institute: Research King salmon feed conversion efficiency (FCE)". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  50. O'Connell, Tim (15 May 2017). "Research fit for a king (salmon)". Nelson Mail. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  51. "Strategic Science Investment Fund". MBIE. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  52. "Cawthron Institute's science platforms | Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  53. "Cawthron Institute: Research The Cultured Shellfish Programme". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  54. "Cawthron Institute: Research Seafood Safety Research Programme". Retrieved 8 March 2020.
  55. "Endeavour Fund Successful Proposals 2017". MBIE. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  56. Hatton, Emma (28 May 2018). "Bloomin' heck: Algae shuts down 150 mussel farms". Radio New Zealand. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  57. "Managing the risk of emerging organic contaminants". ESR. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  58. Zaayman, Morkel. "The removal of emerging organic contaminants from wastewater using constructed wetlands and carbonaceous bioreactors". University of Canterbury. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  59. "Emerging Organic Contaminants". Cawthron Institute. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  60. "High Value Nutrition National Science Challenge". MBIE. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  61. "Sanford Limited". Sanford. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  62. "Musseling Up". Cawthron Institute. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  63. "2019 Endeavour Fund successful Smart Ideas". MBIE. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  64. "Cawthron Culture Collection". Cawthron Institute. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  65. Bohny, Skara (17 April 2019). "Government announces $6m for national algae centre in Nelson". Stuff. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  66. "Algae research to benefit from Provincial Growth Fund". Radio New Zealand. 17 April 2019. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  67. "Land Air Water Aotearoa". LAWA. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  68. "New online guide to safe swimming". Te Ao Maori News. 20 December 2016. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  69. "Kiwis can now surf the net for new beach water quality data". 1 News TVNZ. 21 December 2014. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  70. Mohanlall, Samesh (31 December 2019). "Six South Canterbury swimming spots 'unsafe'". Timaru Herald. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  71. "Our Lakes' Health: Past, Present and Future". Lakes380. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  72. "The Lakes380 Team". Lakes380. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  73. Cartwright, Jess (19 February 2019). "NZ's lakes get a $12m health check as 'beasties' and bacteria sampled". 1 NEWS.
  74. "How healthy are New Zealand's lakes?". Otago Daily Times. 9 January 2018. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  75. "Iwi, scientists team up to study NZ's northernmost lakes". The Northern Advocate. 3 July 2019. Retrieved 11 March 2020.
  76. "2019 Endeavour Fund Successful Research Programmes". MBIE. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  77. "2018 Endeavour Fund successful Smart Ideas". MBIE. Retrieved 9 March 2020.
  78. Floreat scientia : celebrating New Zealand's agrifood innovation. Riddet Institute. Auckland [N.Z.]: published for the Riddet Institute by Wairau Press. 2011. ISBN 9781927158081. OCLC 770668767.CS1 maint: others (link)
  79. "Mussel hatchery takes chance out of farming". Stuff. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  80. Easterfield, Thomas (1917). "The aims and ideals of the Cawthron Institute". Cawthron Lectures. 1: 9.
  81. Cockayne, Leonard (1919). "The distribution of the vegetation and flora of New Zealand". Cawthron Lectures. 3: 27.
  82. Hiroa, Te Rangi (1929). "The Coming of the Maori". Cawthron Lectures. 5: 43.
  83. Rutherford, Ernest (1928). "Electricity and Matter". Cawthron Lectures. 7: 18.
  84. Florey, Howard (1944). "Penicillin". Cawthron Lectures. 20: 7.
  85. Hillary, Edmund (1958). "The New Zealand Antarctic Expedition". Cawthron Lectures. 33 (4724): 526–527. Bibcode:1960Natur.186..526.. doi:10.1038/186526a0.
  86. Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe, Charles (1932). "A conspectus of recent agricultural research with some reflections thereon by his excellency Lord Bledisloe". Cawthron Lectures. 12: 56.
  87. Lyttelton, 10th Viscount Cobham, Charles (1960). "Science as an aid to understanding". Cawthron Lectures. 35 (4811): 121–122. Bibcode:1962Natur.193U.121.. doi:10.1038/193121e0.
  88. Tizard, Catherine (1991). "From Captain Cook and back again". Cawthron Lectures. 50: 16.
  89. Oliphant, Mark (1992). "The world in which we live". Cawthron Lectures. 51.
  90. "Cawthron Institute: Memorial Lecture 76:Thomas Cawthron Memorial Lecture 2019 No.76 Prof. Gideon Henderson and Dr Susie Wood. Video (80 minutes)". Retrieved 7 March 2020.
  91. "NZ's lakes get a $12m health check as 'beasties' and bacteria sampled". TVNZ. Retrieved 7 March 2020.
  92. "Cawthron Institute: Latest publications". Retrieved 7 March 2020.