Environmental groups voice concerns over Stewart Island aquaculture project

A view of the coastline at Port Pegasus, Stewart Island.
Richard Cosgrove

A view of the coastline at Port Pegasus, Stewart Island.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the proposed aquaculture project on Stewart Island, saying it will significantly affect its "pristine marine habitat". 

Both Forest & Bird and the Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand have questioned the location chosen for the potential salmon farm project. 

On Thursday, Forest & Bird released documents, obtained through the Official Information Act, which looked into the anticipated impact of aquaculture on the marine environment at Port Pegasus. 

The documents – dated May 31, 2016, and March 24, 2017 – were from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, advising government ministers on the establishment of Special Economic Zones and their potential effect on the environment.

In the March 2017 report, it was stated that Port Pegasus contained "some of the largest areas of near pristine marine habitat in New Zealand, with significant natural heritage values".

The report also stated the aquaculture proposal would be unlikely to pass the conditions of the Resource Management Act. 

"Initial advice is that most of Stewart Island (and all of Port Pegasus) will be outstanding from a landscape and natural character perspective, and salmon farming in these areas would be inappropriate under the RMA [the act]."

The act restrictions for projects such as Port Pegasus could be over-ruled by the establishment of the special zones, but an intervention of that type "will entail social license risk and risks failing to address difficult trade-offs between competing values and uses".

The Southland Aquaculture Reference Group, established in April, is conducting a feasibility study into the merits of the aquaculture project. 

Forest & Bird Otago/Southland regional conservation and volunteer manager Sue Maturin said the whole process "just doesn't make sense".

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Maturin said there were concerns that the government would seek to establish the special zones to avoid any potential act restrictions. 

"It's one of New Zealand's most remote and pristine marine environments; they'd be introducing structures into a place which is like a wilderness.

"[The proposal] would be exceedingly difficult to pass through the usual methods.

"Our main concern is that they try to circumvent all the usual processes."

Maturin said while Forest & Bird had been invited to be a part of the reference group, they had declined.

"It's a very unbalanced reference group, it's all about creating a social mandate to go ahead with the project."

The reference group met at Environment Southland on Tuesday to discuss the environmental and economic benefits of the aquaculture proposal. 

In particular, the group was gathered to review the findings of the Nelson-based Cawthron Institute, which had been conducting surveys since April on feasibility of the site for salmon farming. 

Reference group independent facilitator Graeme Todd said the feasibility study was "ongoing" but did not want to comment on what was discussed at the meeting.

"The detailed analysis of the scientific data to understand the environmental and economic suitability of aquaculture is still to be finalised.

"We remain committed to sharing the results of this work with the community and other stakeholders when it is right to do so."

That would "hopefully" be within six weeks, Todd said. 

Initially, the meeting was supposed to be a public meeting with Stewart Island residents to update them on the progress of the study. 

However, the meeting was cancelled as it was seen as not appropriate to be held while the oyster removal process was going on at Big Glory Bay.

The aquaculture project forms part of the Southland Regional Development Strategy, and has been highlighted as one of the three key projects to help diversify the region's economy. 

However, the project has not been plain sailing since the announcement of the proposed site in Pegasus Bay at the end of March. 

In May, fears were raised that the salmon farm could have a negative impact on the burgeoning sea lion colony in the bay, while in June the proposal was met with some opposition at a public meeting on Stewart Island. 

 - Stuff

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