Editorial: Powerful arguments and a big test for the EPA

If only New Zealand King Salmon's push to more than double its production from new sea cage farms in the Marlborough Sounds was just about investment, jobs and overseas earnings.

That would make its approach to the Environmental Protection Authority simple. But it is much more than that. This is a bellwether case.

While no single application can be strictly said to set a precedent for those that follow, this one is being made on the back of less restrictive legislation than aquaculture has faced in the past, and under the umbrella of a government that is enthusiastic to see the industry reach its proclaimed target of a billion dollars in sales by 2025 – a lift that would more than double the current figure. It sounds good. Nobody with any knowledge of the global fishing industry can honestly say that wild stocks can continue to feed the world.

Even with the best of management stocks are unlikely to ever again reach their previous bounty. Aquaculture already provides more than half of the international seafood supply and at face value it seems the most logical way forward.

New Zealand, with its long coastline and relatively clean waters is ideal for the industry. Probe beneath the surface, though, and it soon becomes apparent that the farming of seafood comes with its own raft of difficulties. They range from visual pollution and encroachment on public recreational space to the spread of disease into wild populations and the spectre of eutrophication causing dead zones in the ocean and poisonous red tides – to name only a few.

King Salmon is sufficiently persuaded that expansion in the Sounds is a good idea that it has budgeted $6 million for its application, much of it spent on detailed scientific reports to show that the risks are minimal. It has never said that salmon farming doesn't harm the area under the farms, or denied that there is some loss of amenity to the public. Simply put, it argues that its track record of more than two decades in the Sounds, plus what is known overseas, indicates that the damage is slight and hugely outweighed by the benefits, which include many jobs, scores more millions in overseas earnings and a large boost to the economy of the top of the south. It's a story that has extra appeal in Nelson because although the fish are grown in Marlborough waters, most of the work is in the Tahunanui processing plant.

However, many people with ties to the Sounds and a concern for the environment take a different view. They fear that the company understates the environmental risk, they resent public space being used for private gain, they worry about everything from water column degradation to the effect on rare birds. Some believe the company is deliberately not telling the whole story. They are well organised and determined to mount a full, well-researched challenge when the EPA's board of inquiry hears the application later in the year.

While it is easy to sense the company's frustration at what is being said, some of which is alarmist, nobody should begrudge the opponents their say. Marine farming is unique in that it of necessity occupies space that belongs to all. Perhaps more so than with some other development issues, every New Zealander has a right to be heard. It is only when the most rigorous examinations have been carried out and environmental concerns allayed that such farming should be allowed.

This application is not only a test of King Salmon's commitment to true sustainability of the coastal environment, but of the EPA itself.

The Nelson Mail