By Geoffrey Robinson.
Controversial iwi plans to develop a caged kingfish farming industry off the Coromandel coast have advanced again, as a list of precautionary environmental safeguards sought by Waikato Regional Council were rejected by a three-member hearings panel.
Pare Hauraki Kaimoana, an asset holding company of the Hauraki Māori Trust Board and Pare Hauraki Fishing Trust, proposes to produce up to 8,000 tonnes of fish annually in the newly established 300ha Coromandel Marine Farming Zone (CMFZ) between Coromandel Town and Waiheke Island.
Application for resource consents to establish the industrial scale aquaculture operation, along with proposed conditions, were filed by Pare Hauraki in December 2020. Following public submissions, receipt of additional information from the applicant, and independent expert peer reviews of the application on behalf of WRC, public hearings on the resource consents were held in Paeroa from April 17 to 20.
While most of the applicant’s proposed consent conditions have been acceptable to WRC, there has been sharp disagreement regarding the extent of required precautionary measures to protect the stressed Hauraki Gulf marine environment.
At the April hearings, submitters and expert witnesses for and against focused on the speed of farm development. Pare Hauraki has been seeking a three-stage development plan with 50%, 75%, and 100% of total allowable feed and nitrogen discharge. Regional Council has sought as lower and more precautionary, four-stage development starting at 35% of maximum allowable discharge, increasing 20% per stage, with a minimum three-year stage duration to bolster monitoring, assess findings, and increase reaction time in the event of unintended or unforeseen adverse environmental effects or breaching of consent limits.
At the conclusion of hearings, the applicant and council were directed to caucus on staging and other unresolved consent conditions, with the commissioners openly stating they favoured the less precautionary three-stage approach. While reaching agreement on a few technical issues in caucus meetings, WRC and Pare Hauraki reported back on June 21 they had failed to agree on the major sticking points.
The hearings panel issued its decision report on July 5 broadly in favour of Pare Hauraki as expected. The panel decided that each change still sought by WRC, including those pertaining to water quality, benthic effects, environmental monitoring, marine mammals and genetic management, was either “unnecessary”, “unreasonable”, “unduly onerous”, “too arbitrary”, “unworkable”, or adding “complexity” or “operational difficulties”. In contrast, the panel found all the applicant’s proposed conditions “reasonable”, “appropriate”, or sufficient to mitigate environmental risks.
Notably, on the final page of its 130-page decision report, the hearing’s commissioners plainly admit that the sprawling caged fish farming operation “will have moderate adverse impact on water quality and benthic (seafloor) ecology in the Coromandel Marine Farming Zone and in the area immediately around the zone.” The marine environment of the Inner Hauraki Gulf and Firth of Thames is widely recognised as already severely degraded and under increasing ecological pressure. Iwi, council, and the panel all agree, caged kingfish farming will only add to that environmental stress but should proceed anyway.
As proposed, kingfish production would involve a network of 36 massive floating plastic pens, each 53m in diameter and extending 20m toward the seabed and tightly packed with thousands of kingfish. The pens would be tended by up to six moored 40m barges for feed and equipment storage. At full operation, 12,000 tonnes of fish feed pellets would be pumped into the cages each year to take hatchery fingerlings up to 3kg-4kg slaughter weight in 18 months, when they are lifted, stunned, and bled out on site.
Hopefully, some doubt:
Whether the Hauraki iwi fin fish business will ever actually get off the ground, however, remains a question. Since the fish farm zone was identified more than a decade ago, rising sea temperatures and marine heat waves locally have raised concerns about the suitability of the Hauraki Gulf location. Warming water spells fish mortality. From weather to disease, and from cost overruns to fickle markets, fed finfish farming is at best a risky business.
Given Pare Hauraki’s complete lack of experience in fed fish aquaculture and the need for substantial investment, it is possible the consent may be on-sold or leased, or the consent holder may enter into any one of a number of potential joint venture or other operational arrangements with a third-party entity, including from overseas. Any of these options are reasonable to expect.
Despite the applicant ’s centuries-long cultural relationship with the waters of the Gulf, Pare Hauraki might never operate the proposed kingfish farm at all. The actual operator could very well turn out to be ASX-listed Clean Seas Seafood that has been farming yellowtail kingfish in South Australia with mixed success and marginal profitability. Orit could be Huon Aquaculture of Tasmania, which lost 20,000 escaped kingfish in a 2018 incident at Port Stephens NSW and is a subsidiary of mega-global food company JBS. Orit could be the giant transnational Japanese producer Nissui Group running operations right here in Coromandel waters. None of these companies has any cultural relationship what so ever to Hauraki Gulf waters, and their track records are far from pristine.
Meanwhile, the Pare Hauraki kingfish consent will go to the full Waikato Regional Council for a rubber stamp at its next meeting in August. A private change to the Waikato Regional Coastal Plan, requested by Pare Hauraki, to expand the allowable working footprint of the fish farm on the water has already been given the green light by WRC planners.
Response from Warren Maher - Fin fish farm application from Pare Hauraki.
“Following the 5 July decision by commissioners to over rule the submission by Waikato Regional Council with regard to a four stage development and three year monitoring periods of the proposed fish farm in favour of the applicants three stage plan and shorter monitoring periods, I have major concerns they are putting economic concerns ahead of the environmental ones of water quality, benthic effects and an already stressed marine environment.
I am a big supporter of aquaculture and its growth in our area, but with the first ever farm of this type in our region, I believe caution is a better approach than haste. We have seen huge mortality rates in the farmed salmon industry due to rising sea temperatures and the major players now investigating blue water pens to try to combat this temperature problem. I am also concerned with the fish food source. Although no forage fish from New Zealand waters can be used, I worry we are encouraging the depletion of someone else's piece of the ocean for our benefit . There is strong evidence of huge tonnages of krill being harvested for farmed fish food. As this industry grows, I hope all profits remain in New Zealand and the work force is also locally sourced. I will watch this industry develop and hope the operators are diligent with their monitoring and prove my concerns unfounded.”
Caption: Example of Fin Fish Farm feeding - At full operation, 12,000 tonnes of fish feed pellets would be pumped into the cages each year to take hatchery fingerlings up to 3kg-4kg slaughter weight in 18 months, when they are lifted, stunned, and bled out on site.