In an unusual move, an expert panel has declined an application under the Covid-19 fast-track legislation for consent to build a salmon farm off of Rakiura/Stewart Island.

Of 55 applications decided on by panels under the law, this is just the fifth to be declined. It also puts a major damper on the Government’s hopes to turn aquaculture into a $3 billion industry by 2035, which is reliant on some open ocean farming.

Ngāi Tahu Seafood Limited was the applicant for the planned 2500-hectare Hananui salmon farm, which would sit two to six kilometres off the coast of Rakiura. The iwi-controlled company argued in its application that a te ao Māori lens showed the cultural, economic and social benefits of the farm outweighed the environmental costs.

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The panel, chaired by environmental and public lawyer Claire Lenihan, said it accepted Hananui would have “enormous benefit” for the iwi and the wider Rakiura and Southland community and that the holistic approach was a valid one. However, the environmental impacts were simply too significant.

“The large scale and dispersed salmon farms will result in a major step change to a receiving environment that is relatively unmodified by human activities, with very high natural character from a notable absence of any permanent marine structures and a relatively low level of human activity, except transiting and anchoring vessels,” the panel wrote in its decision.

“The marine area is important for a number of threatened and at-risk indigenous fauna, including sensitive benthic communities, marine mammals and sea birds, where adverse effects must be avoided. The proposal is adjacent to Rakiura National Park, and experts agree that at the very least part of the area adjacent to the proposal is an area of outstanding natural landscape (out to 2km) and an area of outstanding natural character.”

It was “with a heavy heart” that the application was declined, the panel wrote.

All of the key legal tests in making a determination on a fast-track consent application fell against the fish farm.

As “non-complying activities”, open ocean aquaculture projects must prove their impacts on the environment are either minor or not contrary to a relevant plan.

The impacts were considered “more than minor” on a range of issues, including biosecurity risks and harmful effects on the water column and on marine mammals, seabirds and sharks and wild fish.

While a biosecurity management plan reduced the risk of introducing diseases to wild fish in the area, the potentially catastrophic impact of disease introduction to Bluff oysters in particular meant there were “more than minor” effects on biosecurity.

Nets to deter marine predators posed a low to moderate risk of entanglement for marine mammals. For inshore fish farms, 10 dolphin entanglements were reported between 1987 and 2018 and 17 fur seals drowned or were euthanised after entanglements between 2014 and 2019.

“The panel finds it is not possible to quantify the level of risk of entanglement or place it in context given the new nature of offshore salmon farming in NZ and the type of structures used, but accept its occurrence is likely to be higher than that reported for existing salmon farming operations.”

Depending on the conservation status of the species, even a single fatality could have a “more than minor” effect, the Department of Conservation argued. The panel agreed, pointing to endangered species like New Zealand sea lions.

While some seabird species were considered safe, threatened species with small local populations such as hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), Whenua Hou diving petrel and three shag species were exposed to risks from Hananui.

There are fewer than 300 pairs of hoiho locally and they would have been vulnerable to “entanglement, habitat exclusion, changes to food supply, disturbance, marine litter and vessel/propellor strike and the potential cumulative effect of all of these potential adverse effects given the proximity of colonies historically used for breeding, the overlap of their known foraging area with the proposed site and affected area of seabed, and the significant decline in the local population over recent years.

“The panel consider the margins in relation to some threatened seabirds in the area may be extremely fine, with the outcomes turning on those margins extreme. For example, for seabird species such as the hoiho that are critically endangered, a very small change in the population could have irreversible and catastrophic effects for their survival in the area.”

For these and other reasons, the application was determined to have “more than minor” impacts, meaning the panel had to consider whether the farm might be contrary to any relevant plans.

It found the Hananui salmon farm would be inconsistent with three parts of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (on protecting indigenous biodiversity, preserving the natural character of the coastal environment and protecting natural features) and was “overall contrary” to the objectives within the Southland Regional Coastal Plan.

In its conclusion, the panel said there was a lack of statutory policy direction which would allow it to appropriately value the cultural impact of the farm.

“The panel understands Ngāi Tahu’s aspirations for aquaculture development in Southland, as an expression of modern mahinga kai, and supports this but finds statutory policy direction through the planning framework is needed to identify such areas to be managed for cultural purposes.”

The Government worked on proposals to aid with the consenting of aquaculture earlier this year but ultimately canned a planned consultation, as Newsroom reported in July.

Oceans and Fisheries Minister Rachel Brooking said Wednesday she hadn’t had a chance to review the decision but officials would be looking at the potential impact on other open ocean aquaculture applications.

“We’re trying to build from a $600 million to $3 billion-a-year [industry] for aquaculture and we’ve got the open aquaculture happening in the Cook Strait but that’s it at the moment. We obviously need a lot more open ocean aquaculture to get to that figure and it’s a good, low-carbon way of growing protein.”

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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