OPINION: What future the magnificent Marlborough Sounds?
OPINION: The future of the beautiful and unique Marlborough Sounds is under threat again from industrialisation. The "relocation" of six unprofitable and environmentally unsustainable salmon farms from hidden bays to prominent marine thoroughfares, in the wildest and most beautiful parts of the Sounds, is yet another push by New Zealand King Salmon (NZKS), this time aided and abetted by the Ministry for Primary Industries.
The application flies in the face of the Marlborough District Council's own Resource Management Plan which prohibits certain areas for aquaculture because of their scenic and recreational value. The prohibited areas were negotiated with industry and the community over 35 years of consultation and discussion, and backed up by the Environment Court on some notable occasions.
This latest relocation proposal also ignores the government's own Environmental Protection Authority process, and the bruising Board of Inquiry that was held in Blenheim five years ago. This was set up by the government to fast-track matters of national importance (and I seriously question how the profit-making of one company can be of national importance). The Board of Inquiry agreed to four of the nine sites sought by NZKS, and specifically stated that the Waitata Reach in the outer Pelorus Sound should have no more than two salmon farms.
Alarmingly, that is where NZKS now wants five new farms, on top of the two that were granted previously, ie a total of seven.
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*Farm proposal causes concern among iwi
The EPA decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, New Zealand's highest legal authority, which reduced the granted four to three, and ruled that where there were Outstanding Natural Landscapes, adverse effects (such as salmon farm structures) must be avoided.
So the latest push by the company, supported by this government, ignores all those sensible and long-fought-for decisions: MDC's Plan, the EPA process, and the Supreme Court decision.
To achieve this, the minister for primary industries has invoked a never-before used section of the RMA, section 360A, which gives the minister extraordinary powers to over-ride the council's aquaculture rules. The reason in this case is political, based on the mantra that anything that makes money is more important than the long-term care of the environment and our natural resources. It is a similar approach to the Trump Administration - business is all, sweep the environment away.
The same push also ignores the very strong wishes of the Sounds communities, most of whom do not want any more aquaculture in this magnificent piece of geography. There are already some 570 mussel farms and 11 salmon farms, and the predominant view of those who know the area is "enough is enough".
Of the six proposed new sites, one would be right in the middle of the remote and wild Waitata Reach, and two just outside West Entry point, a very beautiful wild area, where the traveller first gets the feeling of being back in time, and on the verge of the open ocean. It is a very spiritual place, in my mind similar to Cape Reinga, where humans can feel small and insignificant in such magnificent surroundings. That remoteness and spirituality would be demolished by the presence of obtrusive and smelly salmon farms, and their large flocks of scavenging seagulls.
There are other concerns.
Where is the Marlborough District Council in all this? It is hard to believe that the council has essentially supported this latest proposal, against its own plan. Five years ago a strong and principled council opposed the NZKS' bid for nine new farms. This current stance, which reminds me of a puppy rolling over to have its tummy scratched, is clearly one of not wanting to upset central government. But council is elected by local people to further local interests, and where central government is clearly acting against the wishes of locals, for the sole reason of enabling one company to make more money, we would expect a more courageous stance from our councillors.
So what are the objections to more aquaculture, more salmon farms?
Firstly, there is the beauty, tranquillity, extraordinary landscape and recreational opportunities of the Sounds that attract visitors from throughout New Zealand and the world. I have never heard anyone from NZKS acknowledge this unique beauty. Salmon farms are large, obtrusive, ugly and smelly. They seriously detract from the beauty and peaceful experience of the Sounds.
Secondly, there are very real scientific environmental concerns over the pollution of the seabed under the farms and the effect on the water column further afield. NZKS wishes to relocate six farms to high flow sites because they now admit their farms in low flow sites are "not the best" for the environment. This is after many years of claiming that their operation was totally sustainable. In my time as a councillor I saw reports about the NZKS farms that were never made public which showed poor environmental performance. The seabed has been smothered under the farms, fish have died in the thousands and production has been poor.
The company claims the environment will be better off with the relocation, but the environment will only be better off when salmon farms are taken right out of the Sounds to off-shore or land-based operations. The other option is for the company to farm their existing sites in sync with their environment, instead of grossly overstocking them as they do at present, leading to their environmental failings.
The new farms will have more fish than the old farms and up to four-times as much feed. This turns into salmon faeces, so there will be a corresponding four-fold increase in pollution from these farms going out into the Sounds. The higher flow sites will provide greater dilution in the immediate environment but, as the dairy industry has found out, dilution is only a short term fix. Long term, it creates a much larger problem further afield. You only need to look at the heavily polluted Lakes Taupo, Rotorua and Ellesmere, and most of the rivers that drain dairy country to understand the failure of dilution.
The Sounds is not an infinite sink for waste. As one of my farmer friends said recently, "Dairy farmers are not allowed to dump their waste in waterways. Why should salmon farmers be allowed?"
The third reason to oppose this relocation is one of democracy. How can we allow the minister for primary industries, with the agreement of the ministers of conservation and environment, to ignore their own EPA process, a land-mark decision of the Supreme Court and the community-owned Plan of the Marlborough District Council? It is breathtaking: If you don't like a decision after a fair hearing, just over-ride it. It is bully-boy behaviour so typical of governments that have been in power too long.
The government has also spent at least $1 million of taxpayer money finding sites for NZKS, and has put aside a fighting fund of $250,000 to help the company (whose largest shareholder is a Malaysian company with an appalling environmental record) fight any legal challenges. More taxpayer money for a company already occupying public water space for free. They don't own it, we do.
So wake up Marlborough, and wake up New Zealand. This unique and beautiful waterway in our backyard is under threat, again. If this proposal goes ahead the pressure to industrialise the Sounds will only increase, until we've lost what's special. There are many examples around the world that we should learn from, before it's too late. Don't let it happen.
- The Marlborough Express