The Government’s got an ambitious target to make aquaculture a $3 billion-a-year industry by 2035.

But it can be difficult balancing the need to diversify the economy and create new jobs with the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects.

Last month, Pare Hauraki Kaimoana’s resource consent application for a 300-hectare fish farm in the Hauraki Gulf, between Waiheke Island and Coromandel Town, was granted.

“It’s five blocks of open sea fin-fish farm, so they’re talking about having 36 pens of kingfish farmed and then the rest of it would be mussels and seaweed and sponges,” RNZ’s Farah Hancock tells The Detail.

“We’re not talking a little area, we’re talking a massive thing – each pen is 53 metres in diameter … when this one is fully operating, we’re talking 720,000 fish.” 

The application was granted with a large number of conditions, covering things like noise, lighting, and how to deal with marine life in the area.

Once it’s up and running, the farm’s expected to bring a total economic benefit of $135 million a year, with the creation of 452 direct and indirect full-time jobs.

But Hancock says there has been a lot of opposition to the plan, with environmental concerns top of the list.

“The Firth of Thames, which leads into where this is, is already struggling. It’s got lots of inputs coming in from the farmland and from people. The water quality there isn’t great. Obviously it’s a bit further out, but there are concerns that you’re adding more nutrients.”

Hancock explains how the food the farmed fish are fed and the fish poo can further contribute to the deterioration of water quality.

Newsroom’s Marc Daalder has written about an expert panel’s recent decision to decline an application from Ngāi Tahu Seafood for a massive open ocean fish farm.

“They wanted to build a salmon farm off the coast of Stewart Island. It would’ve been 2500 hectares, 2.6 kilometres off the coast,” he tells The Detail

“The newness here was how far out to sea it was and raising the salmon in a novel environment … they were able to get a slot in the fast-track consenting process which was created during Covid-19 to help accelerate big infrastructure.

“But unlike most of the projects that have gone through that track, this one was declined. The expert panel said the environmental risks are too great.”

The panel did acknowledge it would’ve had enormous benefits for the iwi, Stewart Island and the wider Southland region – creating jobs and generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the economy. 

But there were a range of environmental concerns like the potential introduction of diseases that could affect Bluff oysters, and the risk of marine life like dolphins, fur seals and hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), getting tangled in the fish farm nets.

How then will the Government make its ambitions for the aquaculture industry a reality?

“There’s an acknowledgement that New Zealand has a lot of this ocean area, that we are quite good at fishing and agricultural and primary industry innovation,” Daalder says.

“We have an opportunity here to build it up: it’s lower carbon in many ways than the other forms of protein that we produce – your beef, your lamb – and it also can sometimes be a bit more climate resilient.”

Although projects like Ngāi Tahu Seafood’s proposal were declined, Daalder says there’s a lot of work underway to make sure consenting’s not a barrier to aquaculture: ensuring there are environmental checks, but not too much red tape. 

Raewyn Peart, the policy director for the Environmental Defence Society, wrote a big report on aquaculture in 2019 called ‘Farming the Sea’.

At the time, she says she thought New Zealand’s approach to managing aquaculture was “quite undeveloped” and the country needed to up its game to do it well and reap the benefits.

“We now have a lot of good guidance … but we lack the legal framework to actually apply a lot of that really good thinking. Things like biosecurity: our marine biosecurity framework is very rudimentary and often [there’s] a very slow response.”

But Peart says those hurdles can be overcome.

“This can be a very good industry … I think offshore aquaculture has promise if it’s in the right place and done well.

“But that can be done badly as well, so we need to get it right and then I think it can be a very positive thing.”

Hear more about the potential of aquaculture by listening to the full episode.

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