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Kingfish Farm Gets Green Light.

But Controls and Conditions Remain at Issue By Geoffrey Robinson

Controversial caged kingfish farming in the newly established 300ha Coromandel Marine Farming Zone (CMFZ) in waters off Coromandel Town will be getting the go-ahead by Waikato Regional Council (WRC).

But the council and consultants for Pare Hauraki Kaimoana (PHK), the asset holding company of the Hauraki Māori Trust Board and Pare Hauraki Fishing Trust seeking resource consents for the finfish farm, are at odds about how tightly the environmental risks of the venture will be managed.

In public hearings to begin 17 April, WRC staff will recommend that consents be granted, including for placement and operations of up to 36 kingfish cage structures in the CMFZ and for discharge of feed, medicines and other compounds into the water.

However, the council is also recommending a strong precautionary approach to the fed fish aquaculture project and is seeking a slower staged development than what is proposed by the company in its consent application. WRC is also recommending more robust and extensive consent conditions than those proposed by PHK.

The council’s recommendations are contained in its RMA-required “Section 42A” advance report to the hearings panel outlining the application, independent scientific peer reviews, submissions for and against, and relevant policy and legislation.

The council’s 680-page report covers a wide range of environmental concerns, including effects on water quality, seabed pollution, risks to wild populations from pests and disease, biosecurity, animal husbandry, genetic transfers, navigational safety, marine mammal entanglements, ecotoxicology, and landscape impacts.

In its original tender for the CMFZ aquaculture space accepted by WRC in 2018, Pare Hauraki specifically proposed a four-stage development of the fish farm. This was to provide an additional layer of environmental protection, it said at the time.

However, the PHK consent application subsequently filed in December 2020 seeks a faster, three-stage development plan allowing 50%, 75%, and 100% of total feed and total nitrogen inputs.

Independent peer reviews by subject area commissioned by WRC cite the need for a more precautionary approach than proposed in the application. The expert peer review on water quality recommends a reduction in allowable starting feed discharges, speed of staging, and clear stocking limits. It also addressed a need for monitoring of water quality in Coromandel Harbour as well as the CMFZ proper.

Peer review on benthic (sea floor) environment risks, in particular from waste food and faeces, stated that “some adverse effects have likely been understated”. That report cited “the science community’s poor understanding of feedbacks, interactions, and cumulative effects” as well as likelihood of further stress from ocean warming. It recommended a “more precautionary approach” than proposed.

In its summary Section 42A report, WRC notes “there are many uncertainties and possible underestimations of predicted effects”. It states some adverse environmental effects may be reversible in the short or medium term, but others “may not be reversible”.

The council is recommending consent for development in four stages, consistent with the company’s original tender. WRC seeks a starting level of 35% of total allowable annual nitrogen and feed discharges for the CMFZ, rising to 55%, then 75% and 100%. The council wants a minimum three years duration for each stage so that monitoring captures variability in conditions and no start to operations until extensive baseline monitoring of water quality, seabed environment, and other risk factors have been done.

In response, consultants for Pare Hauraki have indicated they intend to press for the faster, three-stage farm development. They also object to the proposed three-year minimum stage duration.

While monitoring and adaptive management of the finfish farm is required under relevant plans and policies, WRC is seeking a more robust Environmental Monitoring and Adaptive Management Plan than that proposed by PHK, with clear measurable monitoring limits to be set and specific actions to be taken in response to breaches. The objective is to “adapt operations should effects be greater than predicted and/or become unacceptable”.

Additional consent conditions recommended by WRC, but not agreed to by consultants for PHK, include limits on biomass and stocking densities, as well as service vessel speed limits and consultation requirements on marine mammal protection and navigational lighting.

Alongside the kingfish farm consent applications, PHK is seeking a private plan change to the Waikato Coast Plan to allow placement of anchoring structures and cables outside the actual boundaries of the 300ha zone for which it tendered. The private plan change would enable placement of anchored fish cages and barges right out to the edge of the farming zone, thereby expanding the operational surface footprint. The company seeks the change for operational “flexibility and efficiency”.

A Section 42A report to the hearings panel prepared for WRC by transnational consultancy Beca Limited is recommending the private plan change be approved. The writer has accepted all submissions for and rejected all submissions against.

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