Weighing up salmon farming

19:35, Jan 06 2013
Peter Jerram
Peter Jerram

Marlborough District Council environment committee chairman Peter Jerram gives his opinion on the ramification of the decision giving New Zealand King Salmon consent to develop four new fish farms in the Marlborough Sounds. 

The decision by the Environmental Protection Authority to grant four sites for salmon farming in the previously prohibited zone of the Marlborough Sounds, poses some interesting questions for the Marlborough District Council and for the wider community.

The first involves the overall health of the seawater in the Sounds. At present the council has little knowledge of just what state the Sounds water is in. A small rating base, and a large land area in Marlborough, topped by having nearly 20 per cent of New Zealand's coastline, means the council has had few resources available to monitor this important waterway. Yet a part of council's regional responsibilities under the Resource Management Act is understanding and protecting the health of that natural resource.

Mussel farming, which makes up more than 90 per cent of Marlborough's aquaculture, is a pretty clean form of farming. No added feed is required to allow these filter-feeding shellfish to grow. If too many farms are put into a given space, they simply fail to grow adequately, in much the same way overstocked sheep farms have unthrifty animals. Reduce the numbers so the natural feed is sufficient, and they will thrive. That system is working well in the Sounds.

Finfish farming (which includes salmon), on the other hand, involves the addition of large volumes of high-protein feed to keep the fish alive and growing. The downside of this is the large amount of surplus nitrogen and other nutrients that end up in the sea. The local effects of this are well known, with major harmful effects on the seabed under salmon farms.

But the wider effects on the rest of the waterway are not understood, or even monitored, for the reasons given earlier.


It is estimated the nitrogen added to the Sounds from these four new farms will equate to the nitrogen from the effluent of 143,000 people or about 17,000 dairy cows.

How long can the Sounds cope with this? We simply don't know, but evidence given at the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) board of inquiry hearing suggested it won't be very long before major problems such as toxic algal blooms may happen. That will not be acceptable to the mussel industry or to all Sounds' users.

The council, through its environmental science group, simply must start gathering information on a regular basis so we know what is really happening. This will involve at least one extra staff member and other resources - boats, laboratory testing, information storage and retrieval and so on.

All this costs money, so the question is; who pays? Do we add this to the ratepayer burden, or levy those with most to lose, or those adding the nutrients?

The aquaculture industry, in all its forms, has shown a marked resistance to paying for this, despite making use of public commons - the water in which they farm - at no levied cost for that privilege. That is the first dilemma for the council.

The second question involves the Marlborough Sounds Resource Management Plan. For several years the plan has identified two zones in the Sounds: Zone 1, where all forms of aquaculture are prohibited; and zone 2, where aquaculture is allowed under various conditions.

This plan has, until now, been accepted by Sounds users as a fair compromise; there is something for everyone.

However, the EPA board of inquiry decision to allow four farms in zone 1, against the wishes of the council, has changed that balance.

Or has it?

The council's fear is this will create a precedent, that future hearings committees or Environment Courts may see the decision as a ground-breaking one, that the prohibited zone is no longer prohibited and that within a few years industry will have moved into significant tracts of the previously protected area.

The very strong public showing at the NZ King Salmon hearings, when nearly 70 per cent of those submitting opposed the application, has shown that the public does not want that to happen.

It will be incumbent on this and future councils to continue to keep the prohibited area sacrosanct, unless there is a major change in the community's wishes. Given the highly scientific and thoughtful opposition to the proposal this time, and the increasing understanding of humans about what we are doing to our planet, such a change in attitude seems most unlikely.

Yet challenges there will be. The first is likely to come from iwi, who have sites identified and gazetted by this Government for salmon farming in the prohibited zone. It seems likely that others could then attempt to follow the same path.

The council will have to make strong, clear decisions if the Sounds area is going to retain its health, beauty and attraction to tourists and locals alike in the long term.

The third question, and a significant one, revolves around local versus central democracy.

By deeming salmon farming a matter of national importance, the conservation minister was able to take the NZ King Salmon case to the Environmental Protection Authority. (In fact, economist Professor Tim Hazledine told the hearings the economic impact on the local economy was about that of the Pak'n Save development at Westwood - hardly a matter of national significance).

The issue here is one of politics impinging on the legal process. An Environment Court, High Court or Supreme Court case is completely in the hands of the judiciary, and is above political pressure. The EPA board, on the other hand, is handpicked by the Government and the perception among many submitters was that this fact alone meant the playing field was never level.

Former prime minister and constitutional law expert Sir Geoffrey Palmer recently wrote an interesting article for The Press, examining the impingement on local democracy in Canterbury by matters around the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011 and the Environment Canterbury Act 2010. In both cases Sir Geoffrey cites clear breaches of democracy at the expense of local communities.

There would appear to be parallels in the NZ King Salmon case, with the Government pushing the merits of the proposal and "expecting a positive result".

As Sir Geoffrey says "governments in New Zealand frequently think they know best and hardly ever is their confidence justified. Absolute power in the end brings absolute disaster".

Will this EPA decision lead to disaster?

I very much hope not, but an understanding of the implications must be kept firmly in the minds of regional and local decision-makers, who know and understand their communities to a degree that central government never can.

The Marlborough Express