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Iconic Bay or invasive fish farm?

By Professor Gordon Maxwell 19 August 2023.

Hanging over the future of one of the most beautiful Bay’s on Earth sits a proposal to place a 70 acre (30 ha) shell fish farm within Mercury Bay. Once such a human made intrusion arrives, the natural beauty and ecological integrity of the Bay will vanish. Can dolphins conduct their feeding and family functions in such a Bay? Can people, enjoy passive, recreational fishing or safe parasailing in a bay attempting to cope with a forest of dangling ropes parading as a mussel spat farm?

These are some of the challenges that will come with the advent of a 70-acre mussel spat farm. The ecological and cultural insults may not stop with one mussel spat farm. Once the long-standing image of the Great Bay of Hei is shattered by these human-made intrusions, others may follow. The coastal waters beyond the Bay will be targets for aquaculture. Yes, the Firth of Thames may well seem a good place for aquaculture as the geography of the Firth lacks the historic and environmental splendour of this unique ‘Bay’. From what I have experienced over the past 40 years in work and research in coastlines and bays globally, I would argue that the Great Bay of Hei has World Heritage quality.

During the past 10 years, I have been directly associated with a World Heritage (WH) application for a sector of globally special coastline beside Ranong Province of southern Thailand. This site shares coastal waters with Myanmar and exhibits a splendid diversity of habitats and ecosystems of which some tropical mangrove forest and its ecotone are outstanding. When I compare this Thai World Heritage application with our Mercury Bay, I find myself calling out onward, haere whakamua, for our Bay has it all: the world’s southern limit of mangroves, marine mammal visitors, an almost perfect shape, historic and cultural status as a ‘Bay’ loved by generations of all New Zealanders. UNESCO, IUCN and the World Heritage Convention look upon the WH scheme as a way in which people show their valuation of nature and express stewardship within community engagement. These attributes already exist in the majority of people who live beside or visit Mercury Bay. To seek a WH status for Mercury Bay would give long term resilience to one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most loved Bays.

Through my research in Aotearoa New Zealand’s waters, the Pacific, Indian Ocean and through friends and colleagues well beyond, in coastlines as widespread as those of the South China Sea, Peru, Morocco and the Mediterranean, I have come to understand the importance of dolphins and killer whales in our Mercury Bay story. Let’s re-live the respect and affection we – as a nation – once expressed for “Opo” the “crazy” dolphin of Opononi fame. Let’s ensure that family groups of dolphins do not become entangled in acres of dangling ropes within Mercury Bay. There are those who choose to say and maybe pretend to believe, that dolphins and killer whales are smart enough to avoid dangling ropes inside their habitat. This claim does not reflect the science or even the cultures of indigenous people I have worked with in Thailand and Indonesia. The science has demonstrated that pods of dolphins will do all they can to save a calf from entanglement. Sadly, within this attempted rescue and caring process they, too, become trapped. They face death by drowning. Their ecological role as keystone species within the marine ecosystem vanishes with their death.

Our Bay is too special; too valuable; too beautiful to become just another marine farm. World-wide, beautiful bays are endangered sites of happiness.

Professor Gordon Maxwell FRSB is an ecologist and conservationist who has been a member of field-based research teams with the United States Antarctic Program and UNESCO. Although he is technically retired, he continues to lead fieldwork and conservation projects, splitting his time between Hong Kong and his farm at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, North Island of New Zealand.

Re-cap: Extract from Waatea and featured in previous issues of The Informer

Independent commissioners for Waikato Regional Council have given the green light for a mussel spat catching farm at Whauwhau, in outer Mercury Bay. The application was lodged by Coromandel aquaculture industry businessman Peter Bull and Joe Davis on behalf of Ngāti Hei.

The resource consent is for 20 years rather than the 35 years sought and includes 104 conditions covering best practice management, structures, noise, lighting, biosecurity, effects on currents and waves, marine mammals and seabirds. Spat farming involves stringing ropes into the ocean onto which free-swimming larvae attach themselves to spat catching ropes. The ropes are then transferred to a mussel farm for the mussels to continue growing. The proposed spat farm will be located about 1.6 kilometres offshore, and includes three 10-hectare blocks,

The application attracted 204 submissions – 195 in opposition, 5 in support and 4 neutral.

Caption: Professor Gordon Maxwell.


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