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Friday
Jun292012

Baiting the Hooks for Aquaculture

A piece by Reihana and Geoffrey Robinson in the Waikato Times today:

     "Industrial-scale finfish farming in clean Coromandel waters is fast becoming reality, with Waikato Regional Council quietly helping set an economic safety net for big business.

     Expected to surface soon is a draft position paper by WRC staff on coastal occupation charges, whereby international seafood giants like Sealord and Sanford pay to permanently exploit public marine space for private shareholder profit. 

     After rubber-stamping approval of a controversial 300 ha zone for floating-cage farming of kingfish and hapuku last year, WRC opened a tender process that was quickly halted after garnering no takers. The bungling showed just who is in charge of marine management.

     Under normal procedure, WRC would establish occupation charges when it revises its coastal plan, scheduled for 2017. The process is robust, with public input assured through submissions, hearings and appeals under the RMA. Whatever fees might eventuate, they would hardly make or break a projected $100m industry business plan.

     A January 11 WRC report to councillors, however, revealed seafood execs want to tie down council costs before tendering. And eager to deliver for their industry handlers, council staff suggested in the same report a “fast, simple and cheap” solution to the stalled tender process.

     Using an informal “draft position paper”, council intends to establish approximate coastal occupation charges right now. Councillors would be expected to stick to those numbers, or modify them only slightly, when they are formally considered during the official coastal plan review process in a few years.

     As a practical matter, charges set now would be difficult to change significantly once cages are deployed. Seafood execs would fight any changes tooth and nail, and regional councillors take their marching orders from business proponents in central government.

     To make sure fish farm companies are happy, the January memo confirmed staff will “test” their proposed charging regime with industry executives before letting the ink dry. The message is, “tell us what you need to make the numbers work.”  Environmentalists, recreational fishers, local residents, boaties, and sustainability advocates who question establishment of a dirty industry along the Coromandel coast are kept out of the loop.

     Most disturbing, though, is WRC’s intentional lack of transparency. The biggest advantage for WRC in quickly establishing industry charges the informal way is that it “does not generate any public controversy”, as council staff reminded councillors. And WRC councillors know “sow crate” finfish farming is controversial.

     Usually, councils are not so blatant about stifling public debate. Any submissions and hearings process to officially determine appropriate charges a few years from now will be a charade at best.

     At the same time WRC policy staff were greasing the financial wheels for aquabusiness companies, council resource managers presented the Environment Committee with a alarming report on the environmental risks and effects of finfish farming off the Coromandel, along with possible mitigation options. 

     The comprehensive summary of adverse outcomes, presented February 7, makes sober reading, confirming both research and industry experience. And it doesn’t even start to address environmental sustainability, effects on navigation, visual impacts of fish farms on natural character, or ethics of marine “sow crates”.

     Identified risks include seafloor fouling and degradation from waste, sediment and faeces; impacts of chemicals, anti-foulants and drugs; alteration of waves and currents; parasite and disease transmission to wild stock; entanglement and death of marine mammals and seabirds; and more. 

     The report admits some environmental consequences, notably genetic effects of escapees on wild fish stock and the spread of invasive species to the coastline, could extend well beyond the Waikato Region and, worst of all, be irreversible. It frankly states some disease risks are “poorly understood” and effects from invasive organisms are “unpredictable” and occasionally “far-reaching”. Not a pretty picture.

     So what does an outfit that two years ago branded itself “Environment Waikato” do when confronted with the environmental risks of its own industry-first agenda? 

     Two days after the shocking Environment Committee presentation, WRC public relations staff went into damage control, issuing a press release claiming those potentially catastrophic environmental risks can be managed adequately through the resource consent process -- just like the council successfully keeps oil and diesel out of the Waikato River, we presume.

     Then two weeks later, on February 27, the council majority eliminated chances of any further embarrassment by dissolving its core business Environment Committee completely. In one step it purged pesky Environment Committee Chair Jane Hennebry, whose bad habit of asking hard questions and fostering open debate irritates colleagues, folding her committee’s work into the back seat of an unwieldy “resource use and environmental monitoring” panel under the uninspiring chairmanship of Cr Lois Livingston.

     Failure to protect the marine environment is bad enough. Fast-tracking its degradation is far worse".

I will only add that there was a very clear indication given by Ben Day at the Wednesday Meeting that every effort would be made to 'fast-track' all the consents. I believe it imperative that this not be permitted to happen. Everyone with concerns about this process should ensure that their voices are  heard.

The rush to get fish farming in place on the Gulf is born from ignorance and apathy, and the desperate desire for economic development at any cost so evident around all of the council tables involved in this process; aided, abetted and egged on by a Government that has many eggs in this basket.

 

 


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