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Wednesday
Dec172014

Geoffrey Robinson on Fin-Fish Farming 

Geoffrey puts it succinctly, and places the entire fin-fish proposal in context. If only they had gone to the market in the first place, they may have saved ratepayers a great deal of money:

Finfish Farming Plan Goes Belly Up

BY GEOFFREY ROBINSON

Ambitious plans to create a Coromandel-based caged finfish farming industry in the Firth of Thames appear to be dead in the water.

Despite active promotion by the Ministry for Primary Industry with backing from Waikato Regional Council and Thames-Coromandel District Council, the project has failed to progress past the early planning phase.

Internal WRC documents indicate that efforts to attract industry investors stalled in late 2013 with virtually no further progress toward tenders and consents being made since that time.

Space for finfish aquaculture in the Firth of Thames was made available through changes to the Waikato regional coastal plan in 2011 at the direction of Government.  In promoting a local industry start-up, WRC and TCDC cited annual production potential of up to 12,000 tonnes of kingfish, hapuka, and possibly other species in 240 hectares of the newly created Coromandel Marine Farming Zone off Coromandel Town and 72 hectares in Wilson Bay.

Problems arose quickly, however, when an initial call by WRC in late 2012 for industry expressions of interest failed to attract investors. To restart the project, a working group of WRC, TCDC, MPI and seafood industry representatives was formed in early 2013 and outlined a revised six-month promotional and tendering process to commence later that year.

Promotional plans included hosting of industry VIPs, meetings with council leaders, dinners, site tours, and “ceremonial greetings”, according to working group minutes.

MPI was to work with NZ Trade and Enterprise to promote the pre-tender and tender process overseas and identify potential investors, according to the minutes.  However, internal WRC emails and reports indicate numerous concerns and barriers to investment were identified by industry, making it likely the tender process, if allowed to proceed, would fail.

Industry concerns, according to the WRC documents, included the consent process, lack of infrastructure, undeveloped world markets for new species, incomplete NIWA fishery research, bonds and coastal occupation charges, and future requirements of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan, expected to be released in mid-2015.

Of greatest concern to potential investors, according to WRC documents, was the cost, duration, and ultimate uncertainty of the resource consent process. 

To address this problem, the working group proposed a secret “Plan B” whereby WRC (the regulating authority) would apply to itself for a finfish farming resource consent that it would then transfer to an actual aquaculture operator. 

In an August 2013 meeting, WRC committed to further exploring the details of “Plan B”.  However, an internal WRC report a few weeks later concluded that the council would be prohibited by terms of its own regional coastal plan from applying for a fish farming consent in the Coromandel Marine Farming Zone.  According to the report, WRC might still legally pursue consent for trial fish farming in the smaller Wilson Bay area, but was likely to encounter numerous problems with that scenario as well.

In August 2013, according to a “confidential” internal council memo, WRC staff also became aware of previously unreported NIWA monitoring information indicating unusually low levels of dissolved oxygen near the proposed Coromandel Marine Farming Zone fed aquaculture site.

According to the memo, the low oxygen “may reach levels that would impede fish growth and even be harmful to farmed and wild fish.” 

“The immediate short-term risk is that the fish farming space in both the Coromandel Marine Farming Zone and Wilson Bay Area C is not viable,” the memo went on to say.

Meanwhile, prospects of an industrial scale installation of floating fish cages met with opposition from the boating community, environmentalists, recreational fishers, local mussel farmers, and flounder fisherman, according to WRC documents.  Opponents cited an extensive list of environmental risks including pollution from fish waste, food waste, antibiotics, and anti-fouling chemicals, spread of disease to wild stocks, danger to mariners, and unsustainability of world fish stocks used as feed.

While proponents claimed finfish farms could create up to 355 new fulltime jobs in the district, an internal WRC report obtained under the Official Information Act states, “employment created by a marine farm operation is predominantly low paid, part-time, seasonal and casual, both on the farm itself and in the factories processing the product.”

WRC confirmed the near absence of internal documents on fish farming off Coromandel since November 2013 is “because the Waikato Regional Council has not done any work on this project in that time.”

WRC Chair Paula Southgate confirmed this week fish farming “is not actively being worked on”.

According to WRC, further changes to the Waikato regional coastal plan would be needed to clear the way for any future fed aquaculture development in the Firth. A review of the coastal plan will likely not commence until the second half of 2015. With appeals the plan might not be operative for up to four or five years.

WRC has not revealed how much the council expended in direct outlays and staff time in its attempt to encourage finfish farming off the Coromandel.

 

 


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