The Ministry for Primary Industries is planning to consult on new national direction on aquaculture this year, in an effort to cut through regulatory barriers to building fish farms and other facilities.

In a December briefing to then-Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, officials said current Resource Management Act (RMA) processes “take too long and cost too much”. Though the new resource management system is supposed to make it easier to develop aquaculture, it won’t be fully in place until the end of the decade.

That leaves precious little time to accomplish the Government’s goal of making aquaculture a $3 billion industry by 2035.

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“We have identified three areas where improvements made in the short term through new national direction under the RMA could have a positive impact on aquaculture industry growth,” officials wrote. This would potentially take the form of changes to the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement or the National Environmental Standard for Marine Aquaculture.

The first proposal would differentiate between consenting rules for research and trials versus those for commercial production. As it stands, councils usually treat consent applications for research the same as they would an application for a fully fledged fish farm.

“Stakeholders have raised concerns that current consenting processes are a barrier to undertaking research and trials,” officials said.

“National direction could address this by establishing appropriate durations, scale, and other considerations for research and trials. This could include more straightforward consenting processes (for example, more lenient consent activity statuses and reduced notification requirements).”

Consents for commercial production could also be streamlined in Māori aquaculture settlement areas. Legislation entitles Māori to a fifth of the space allocated for aquaculture in New Zealand, though they can take cash instead. Most iwi have taken cash because of the difficulty of consenting fish farms in their settlement areas, according to the briefing.

The third option would issue guidelines to councils for how to allocate new aquaculture space. The current first-in-first-served approach is uncompetitive, officials said, and tenders or other systems could mean better results.

Earlier this year, the ministry consulted with Māori, local government and industry representatives on the proposal. The briefing said public consultation was due in the middle of this year.

In May, the new Oceans and Fisheries Minister, Rachel Brooking, told Newsroom she was expecting further advice on national direction for aquaculture in the coming weeks. She wouldn’t say whether the consultation timeline in the December briefing was still accurate.

Environmental groups had a mixed reaction to the proposals as detailed in the briefing.

“Overseas we have seen that the aquaculture industry has had serious negative impacts on the ocean – and it must be highly regulated to ensure it doesn’t do more damage to our struggling marine environment. Fast tracking, or bypassing due diligence could have catastrophic consequences for the waters of Aotearoa, at a time when they cannot afford further pressures,” Greenpeace oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper told Newsroom.

“Examples of how aquaculture can negatively impact the ocean are numerous, [including] introducing chemicals and drugs into the ocean (in an attempt to control disease outbreaks), destruction of natural habitats to create the fish farms themselves, nutrient pollution buildup that can then devastate surrounding biodiversity, and cause deadly algal blooms. Escaped farmed fish can also transmit diseases to wild fish and devastate the population.”

Raewyn Peart, the policy director for the Environmental Defence Society and the author of multiple books on marine management, said some of the proposals had merit but others were concerning.

“The research and trials, that makes sense to me. We do want to be able to research new species, new methods, and it doesn’t make sense that in order to conduct any kind of experimentation you have to go through a very long resource consent process,” she said.

“Number three, allocation, also makes complete sense. This is public space and we want to make sure that it’s allocated to the best use and the public is getting fair return for the use of that space. I’m more concerned about the second aspect, these aquaculture settlement areas. I don’t believe that space should be made available for aquaculture unless it’s fully assessed.”

Māori settlement areas were a good idea but they needed to be in places that had already been vetted for environmental impacts.

“Aquaculture can be a very positive industry for the country but we absolutely need to get it in the right place and it needs to be properly managed. If we make haste and put these things in the wrong places, it can be very hard to fix. I just think we need to do it well and then we can have a positive and sustainable industry.”

Aquaculture New Zealand chief executive Gary Hooper referred Newsroom to the group’s submission on the RMA reform legislation.

“The bill should ensure that an appropriate transition is in place, moving from the RMA to the [Natural and Built Environments Act]. This is critical so aquaculture does not stagnate. There are immediate opportunities that need an enabling framework and Government intervention should be considered to bridge the transition,” the industry group wrote in its submission.

Hooper said he wasn’t sure whether the proposals in the briefing were still going ahead, or whether they would be rolled into the new resource management system later this decade.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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