Aquaculture company NZ King Salmon sees open ocean farming as the way to significantly increase its production, but its plans are running into a strong tide of opposition

For anyone with a connection to the Marlborough Sounds, the news of plans for another NZ King Salmon farm is cause for concern.

The company has a chequered history in the area with site selection, high fish mortalities and resource consent battles as it pushes to expand its operations.  

Now they are seeking nearly 1800ha of public water space in the outer Marlborough Sounds for free, in a bold venture for an “open ocean” farm  on a scale never attempted before in New Zealand. Yet they were surprised when the Department of Conservation, iwi and environmental groups objected to the proposal.  

The company’s ambition is consistent with the Government’s strategy to create a $3b aquaculture industry. But their choice of site off Cape Lambert is not consistent with the Government’s NZ Coastal Policy Statement to protect marine biodiversity, natural character and outstanding landscapes. On top of that is the serious engineering challenge of keeping the farm in place in the fast currents and churning swells of the Outer Sounds, and disagreement over what constitutes open ocean.

While NZ King Salmon and the Ministry for Primary Industries are pushing for development, those opposed say aquaculture needs to be in the appropriate place.

The proposed site is not appropriate: it is classed in the Marlborough District Council’s proposed Environment Plan as outstanding natural landscape and outstanding natural character. It is an untouched piece of coastline, a special place for boaties and recreational fishermen and habitat for dolphins, seabirds and migrating whales.

It is surrounded by eight ecologically significant marine sites. The closest is McManaway Rock, home to a colourful gallery of seaweeds, corals, sponges and anenomes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Nemo movie.

Battles are nothing new when it comes to salmon farming in the Marlborough Sounds. NZ King Salmon continues to seek more space despite failing to keep to the environmental limits set for their current farms.

Those limits aim to stop the fish waste (faeces) spreading beyond the boundary of the farm into the wider marine environment. Farmed salmon are fed a high-protein diet and they excrete a lot – that means nitrogen and phosphates fouling the water and seabed (just as excessive dairy farm run-off pollutes rivers and lakes).

If farms are “run hot” (too many fish and faeces for the environment to absorb), the risk of stress, disease, and fish deaths increases. Mortality rates at some NZ King Salmon farms have been at least 40 percent at times. This is an environmental issue and an animal welfare issue – if people drove past a dairy farm and saw 40 percent of the cows dead due to over-stocking and disease there would be an outcry.

With climate change and warming oceans, it is getting harder for NZ King Salmon to meet its environmental requirements and production targets. The company’s response is to seek more public water space rather than reduce stock and adjust their farming methods. And their new frontier is what they call the open ocean.

Waitata Farm in Pelorus Sound, where pollution has spread 14ha beyond the consented area. Photo: Supplied

NZ King Salmon CEO Grant Rosewarne describes the Cape Lambert proposal as the way of the future for salmon farming.

He told The Detail: ”That piece of space is in a unique spot that is either sheltered by D’Urville Island from the west, sheltered by the Marlborough Sounds from the south and the east, and even sheltered by the North Island. So that little spot means we can farm in the open ocean with existing technology.”

The proposed site might be a sweet spot for salmon farming, but it is not open ocean. It is just six kilometres off Cape Lambert. Half of it is still within the Marlborough District Council’s harbour limits. The shelter to the west, south and east, as described by Rosewarne, is part of the outer Marlborough Sounds. A boatie going from Cape Jackson to D’Urville Island will have to change course to avoid the farm. And judging by NIWA’s water temperature maps, conditions are similar to the entrance to Pelorus Sound, vulnerable to La Niña marine heatwaves and warming currents from the Tasman Sea.

Rosewarne seems perplexed that community environmental groups and other objectors (including Department of Conservation, the Environmental Defence Society, Forest & Bird, Ngāti Kuia and the NZ Sport Fishing Council) are not getting behind the proposal. If it were actually out in the open ocean, away from ecologically important areas, and offered as an alternative to the troubled farms inside the Marlborough Sounds, the company might find more support.

However, NZ King Salmon has stated it will keep all its farms within the Sounds in addition to the new “open ocean” site.

NZ King Salmon occupies and uses this public water space for free. It does not pay rates or an occupancy charge. Instead, Marlborough ratepayers cover the cost of monitoring the wider environmental effects of the farms.

In Norway, a company such as NZ King Salmon would have to bid to buy a one-off licence to farm an ocean site. Based on a 2018 auction, the Cape Lambert application would equate to $300 million under the Norwegian system.

A better option is to get out of the sea and on to the land. Large-scale land-based salmon farming is gaining traction in Norway, Denmark and the US – water temperature is controlled, waste contained, and staff have an easy drive to work. Tiwai Point springs to mind as a site. However, NZ King Salmon regards land-based farming as too expensive.

So, who is left to speak up for the coastal environment?

Community environmental groups are working hard but it’s not a level playing field. They are volunteers with day jobs who are in it for the good of the Sounds, not corporate profit. They rely on donations and can’t come close to affording the lawyers, PR consultants and expert witnesses of NZ King Salmon. The situation is much the same for resource-stretched iwi.

But they are gearing up for the Cape Lambert consent hearing next year, and the hope is for careful decision-making that gives weight to the needs of the coastal environment and recreational and customary users of the Marlborough Sounds.

Bev Doole works pro bono for the Marlborough Environment Centre, which submitted in opposition to the NZ King Salmon proposal.

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