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The bright blue future - strangled in red tape

Friday 17 July 2020

In the world of New Zealand seafood, aquaculture, it must be said, has always been the teacher’s favourite. Mostly well behaved and destined for a bright and limitless future. The one kid who is guaranteed to keep you well in your retirement.

Last year, Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash launched an ambitious plan to take the industry from $600 million to $3 billion in 15 years and said part of that growth would be to extend aquaculture into open ocean farms.

Grant Rosewarne, chief executive of New Zealand King Salmon, is the industry’s chief cheerleader, his optimism and excitement for aquaculture’s future is so relentlessly bullish you’d buy shares if he was selling them door-to-door.

So, you have to worry when continuing and constant delays to King Salmon’s flagship open ocean farm, Blue Endeavour, have even Rosewarne seething with frustration.

The government’s recent Fit for a Better World document, a blueprint for how primary industries are going to pull New Zealand out of its COVID-induced economic doldrums, made special mention of aquaculture, talking up its “huge potential” and making specific mention of open ocean aquaculture.

The reality is, open ocean aquaculture is just another victim of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

New Zealand has 430 million hectares of water on its doorstep, the fourth largest EEZ in the world, and the RMA red tape being put in King Salmon’s way to get less than five hectares of that to grow 4,000 tonnes of sustainable King Salmon is a very long and very sorry saga.

Rosewarne says the process is as ridiculous as specifying whether they are using square or circular structures when it’s a farm no one will see as is over the horizon.

Open ocean farms are proven to be fully reversible; once farming stops they very quickly revert to how they were, but King Salmon has just had to pay $250,000 for a survey of how many horse mussels are in the Cook Strait to prove that if the farm had an impact on them, the horse mussel population wouldn’t suffer.

Open ocean farms are expensive – some will cost in the vicinity of $100 million and have a lifespan that is longer than the 35 years allowed by the RMA. The scale of the investment required and uncertainty over the water space are not happy bedfellows.

Rosewarne says the process is so laborious that by the time they get the farms consented he doubts the technology will still be current.

In the case of Blue Endeavour, which is going to lie 7 kilometres north of Cape Lambert in the Cook Strait, there are only 14 submitters involved in the process. He is doubtful that the RMA hearing scheduled for September will go ahead as there has been a constant stream of new hoops to jump through delaying every step of the process.

King Salmon could go beyond 12 nautical miles and out of the clutches of the RMA but then they would come under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Authority. Last time they tried that it cost them $11 million because there was such an uproar from council and public that they were not going through the RMA. To add insult to injury, they only got them three of the nine water-space allocations they wanted and didn’t gain one kilo of extra volume because they were forced to retire other sites in low flow areas. In other words, the RMA is bad, but the EPA is worse.

Rosewarne says Blue Endeavour is on the same scale as what they do in the Sounds but with currents twice as fast, so the impact is expected to be less.

He just wants the go ahead, to prove how benign the process is.

“We could start on the same scale in the ocean as we currently farm inshore and be monitored to see any effects. If it fails, the seafloor will naturally reverse with no harm done.”

Instead, he battles on month after month, year after year with the RMA.

This is a problem government needs to solve quickly as climate change affects some inshore sites.

Fit for a Better World makes mention of improving regulatory settings around aquaculture and some political parties talk of a review of the RMA.

Either would be preferable to the current situation. If we’re serious about pulling New Zealand out of the forthcoming economic slump, it’s time for some concrete action on aquaculture.

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