Fish farming furore

JOBS ARE NEEDED: ‘‘Those in opposition, millionaires among them, are concerned about recreational fishing and yachting. I’d say its a selfish approach’’ - Nora Rameka
JOBS ARE NEEDED: ‘‘Those in opposition, millionaires among them, are concerned about recreational fishing and yachting. I’d say its a selfish approach’’ - Nora Rameka

It's a time of hope for Far North jobless but despair for people who see proposals for aquaculture as a threat to the environment.

Opinions are strong and divided.

Te Runanga O Ngati Rehia has been working for years to gain approval for a mussel farm in the Bay of Islands, aiming to create 400 jobs for the north.

But it has had to shelve its plans because the cost of consent goes up all the time and opposition is strong. Ngati Rehia is looking at an estimated cost of $1 million with no guarantee of success.

"Much of the opposition, we believe, is unwarranted," spokesperson Nora Rameka says.

"People who oppose our application should show us what kind of jobs are they offering to employ our unemployment people. Those in opposition, millionaires among them, are concerned about recreational fishing and yachting. I'd say it's a selfish approach - all about themselves."

The application will remain alive until 2014.

Westpac Mussels Distributors' application to establish a 125-hectare green shell farm west of Mahinepua (Stephenson) Island attracted hundreds of submissions.

An application by Waingaroa Fisheries Company to erect finfish farming structures, primarily for kingfish, in Owanga Bay, Whangaroa Harbour, is proving controversial.

Aquaculture New Zealand chief executive Gary Hooper says the business provides opportunity to create regional jobs, support the economics of communities and generate export earnings, while sustainably producing premium seafood.

"The New Zealand aquaculture industry has been farming in local waters for over 40 years, in which time they've evolved from a group of innovative pioneers, to a proven, highly-specialised and progressive, science-based industry, that generated over $400 million in revenue last year alone. We have a proud history of strong environmental processes independently recognised as world leading."

He says aquaculture is now the world's fastest-growing primary industry and demand for aquaculture products is expected to strengthen significantly as the world's population grows and wild-catch levels remain relatively static.

"The high quality of New Zealand coastal waters, their natural productiveness, along with the prevalence of sheltered harbours and inlets create ideal conditions for aquaculture. Couple this with our pristine waters, world class environmental management practices and reputation for quality and food safety and we are well-placed to capitalise on this food growing revolution with high value premium seafood products."

He says public and community consultation is an integral part of the process.

But Far North Forest and Bird chairman Dean Baigent-Mercer says the push for an aquaculture industry in Northland, estimated to be worth $300 million by 2030, largely through expansion of finfish farming, will not fix the problem of serious overfishing.

"The quota management system is so rotten they are admitting industrial fish farms are needed to bring back fish. It is the ultimate proof of failure and they need to pay the consequences, not local people who want to look after our patch."

He warns of legal challenges ahead.

Marine biologist Roger Grace says in spite of glowing reports from vested interests on the economic benefits of finfish farming, there is little appreciation of the harm in terms of the environmental qualities of local waters and seabed, the impacts on public amenity values, and the long-term impacts on natural fish stocks.

He agrees a more conservative and realistic approach to wild fish management would have far greater long-term economic and environmental values than pursuing sea-cage fin- fish farming for short-term gain.

"My understanding is that for every one kilogram of consumable product from a finfish farm, between five and eight kilograms of wild-caught fish is required.

"So far from taking pressure off fish in the wild, finfish aquaculture dramatically increases the impact of fishing on wild stocks, and there will be a demand for large quantities of ‘trash' fish of virtually any species to provide fish meal and other products to keep the finfish farms operating."

A proportion of the food offered to fish in sea-cages is not eaten and falls through the cage floor on to the seabed. There, with fish faeces, it overwhelms any natural scavengers that may attempt to consume it, and

basically rots on the seabed, causing anoxic dead zones.

Such a problem is likely in the Whangaroa Harbour, he says.

And he warns there are biosecurity risks of spreading unwanted invasive organisms from one farm to another on contaminated equipment or vessels, and in some cases attached to actual farm stock being moved to another location.

"I would not be surprised if undaria has been transported to the mussel farm off Houhora, though I don't think anyone has bothered to look despite my repeated requests."

Yachting New Zealand has opposed both aquaculture proposals for Whangaroa Harbour.

It says it is not opposed to aquaculture but seeks that aquaculture takes place in appropriate places and Whangaroa Harbour is highly popular for boating.

Former World Bank agricultural adviser John Greenfield, whose views were featured in last week's Chronicle, says the aquaculture industry stance does not address how aquaculture interferes with the environment

"I‘m not a greenie, I have been thinking of ways we can make money up here in the North and increase employment, and one of them may be to grow arabica coffee, we should be experimenting with that now. If I thought the [aquaculture] industry was useful in any way I would be right behind it, but when they try to hoodwink us into installing marine structures, and telling us how it will improve employment, I am insulted that they would think we are so dumb."