The deep, clear waters of the Marlborough Sounds are a summer playground for New Zealand, but this winter it is looking more like a battleground. For Danny Boulton, who runs French Pass Sea Safaris, a day at the office used to start with a leisurely breakfast looking out over the ever-changing waters of French Pass near D’Urville Island. “I never tire of the view, the colours, the seascape. I take visitors from all over the world out in the Sounds and they’re blown away by the pristine beauty,” he enthuses.
But lately Boulton has been spending a lot more time on his computer and the phone, rallying support for Sustain Our Sounds (SOS), a new community group set up to oppose an application by New Zealand King Salmon to double production from its marine farms. The company has applied for nine new sites throughout the Sounds, including one that is an existing mussel farm. Eight of the sites are in bays where aquaculture is prohibited because of their scenic beauty and popularity with boaties, anglers and other Sounds users. Three of the farms would be in Queen Charlotte Sound along the route of the inter-island ferries.
King Salmon has selected these areas because the conditions better suit its fish, which need cool and fast-flowing water to flush away waste from their growing pens. “We need more space to grow more fish to keep up with international demand,” says NZ King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne. Currently, King Salmon sells around $115 million worth of fish a year from its five existing farms. If its expansion plans go ahead, Rosewarne says, the company will be able to double production in three to five years and create about 120 jobs. “We’re just trying to leverage as many opportunities as we can for our company, for the top of the South and for New Zealand.”
King Salmon rejects claims the farms will deter tourists, noting the Sounds already have many mussel farms, and are well used by recreational users and the inter-island ferries. It also has plans to boost tourism, particularly food-related tourism. “We believe the Marlborough region will become as recognised for its salmon as it is for wine,” it says. Its mission has strong backing from the Government, which has identified aquaculture as a key industry that could potentially increase export earnings. To help reach its target of $1 billion in sales by 2025 from aquaculture, the Government passed legislation last year to streamline the consent process and do away with the Aquaculture Management Areas that restricted where marine farms could go.
As part of its reform of the Resource Management Act, the Government has also set up an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a fast-track planning process intended to avoid the lengthy hearings, delays and appeals of the local authority and Environment Court processes. Only certain proposals, deemed to be of “national significance”, can go to the EPA. Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson decided the King Salmon application was one such proposal.
SOS environmental lawyer Sue Grey says fighting the application has been a “huge and daunting” task, largely because the entire process has to be squeezed into just nine months. The community has been given just 20 working days to prepare submissions on a technical proposal that runs to 3000 pages. “They are faced with a huge project that could completely change their lifestyle, their livelihood and the place they live,” she says. Meeting the May 2 deadline has been a big challenge.
One of the group’s main concerns is the effect on marine ecosystems of pollution from salmon faeces. It is also concerned that tourism could be affected if the clear waters of the Marlborough Sounds are compromised. Recreational users don’t want the visual pollution (six of the sites will host a 280sq m building on a barge, up to 7.5m high) and they are also concerned about loss of access. There’s also a fear that as the industry intensifi es, so will the risk of disease and harmful algal blooms.
The proposal would increase the occupation of salmon farms in the Sounds by around 206ha, although the company has noted only 12ha will be on the water’s surface. Because the salmon will be contained in cages, they will have exclusive use of these areas, and they could be in place for 35 years. It will also mean that each year 40,000 tonnes of fi sh-feed will be discharged into the water, some of which will settle on the seabed.
Some of the farm sites are also next to, or encroach on, areas that are considered nationally signifi cant for endangered species such as the Hector’s dolphin and the New Zealand king shag. King Salmon has already commissioned reports from such heavyweights as the Cawthron Institute, Niwa and environmental consultancy Boffa Miskell to bolster their case. At this stage, SOS is relying on donations and services in kind for their reports, and members have dug into their pockets to pay for expert witnesses from overseas. The group is also hoping to get $40,000 from an environmental legal assistance fund, run by the Ministry for the Environment. “It is David and Goliath,” Grey says. “There is no way of overcoming that except to say that sometimes David can win, but he has to believe he can win and be very resourceful with what he’s got.”
For King Salmon, which is 51% owned by the Tiong family in Malaysia, the bills will be even bigger. As applicant, it is required to pick up the tab for scientific reports; all the EPA costs, including an independent adviser for submitters; and running the board of inquiry that will make the decision. “When we started, we were told it would cost about $2 million, but that’s escalated to $6 million because we have had to go to a whole new level of science for the EPA,” says Rosewarne.
The company has already enlisted more than 40 experts, he notes, who have written detailed reports on such issues as benthic effects (how the lowest levels of water will be affected), water column effects, birdlife and economic benefits. “These are available to the public – nobody needs to go and write their own report for their submission, they can use ours. All the work’s been done for them,” he claims. But Grey begs to differ. “The preliminary advice we’ve had from our experts is that there are huge gaping holes in the reports that have been provided. Which means we have to pay for our own.” One benefit of the EPA process is that the outcome will be known by Christmas, she agrees. But a downside is that there will be no opportunity to appeal, except on a point of law.
This power of the board of inquiry slowly dawns on those at a recent public meeting in Blenheim, where about 25 people have turned up on a cold and rainy night to fi nd out more about the EPA process. Up the front is Sarah Gardner, general manager of nationally significant proposals for the EPA. She is at pains to point out that the EPA does not decide the application – that is the job of the board of inquiry. Her team is there just to administer the process. The board of fi ve has already been appointed and is headed by Environment Court Judge Gordon Whiting, known to some in the audience for his decision in 2010 to give TrustPower the go ahead to build a controversial hydro scheme on the local Wairau River. Another board member is Michael Briggs, an RMA hearings commissioner and former Marlborough district councillor.
Some at the meeting are concerned about how the board of inquiry was selected. Gardner says the EPA put names forward, including suggestions from the Marlborough District Council. The list that went to the minister had a Sounds resident, but Cabinet did not agree to that appointment. This rings alarm bells for Grey: “The Government has identifi ed aquaculture development as a priority and Cabinet is also making decisions about who sits on the board of inquiry. Isn’t this weighted against members of the community who are opposing the application?”
“That’s not a question I can give you an answer to,” replies Gardner. Success for King Salmon depends on being granted a change to the Marlborough Sounds Resource Management Plan. This plan underpins all activities in the Sounds and balances economic development with sustainable use of the area’s natural resources. At present there are two zones – Coastal Marine Zone 1, where new aquaculture is prohibited, and Coastal Marine Zone 2, where a marine farmer can apply for resource consent.
King Salmon proposes creating its own zone, Coastal Marine Zone 3, for each farm and changing it from prohibited to controlled. This means it will get permission if certain standards are met. At the same time, resource consents are being sought for each site.
This is a step too far for the district council, which, to the “dismay and astonishment” of King Salmon, has decided to oppose the application. The chairman of the council’s environment committee, Peter Jerram, says the application raises the issue of who is in charge of planning for the region. “Is it the district council, which has developed the plan over many years in consultation with the local community, or is it a private company who are essentially writing a plan to suit themselves? We’re not opposed to salmon farming per se, but we’re not prepared to have our plan challenged so fundamentally.” The council acknowledges that King Salmon’s expansion would create jobs and would also have economic benefits for some local companies.
This week, King Salmon released an economic report that suggested the proposed expansion will help create an extra 1600 jobs by 2021, and add hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy. “That has exercised some councillors and it is a balancing act,” says Jerram. The Sounds, he notes, are the jewel in Marlborough’s crown. “It’s a unique area of outstanding natural beauty and a huge tourist attraction. The big picture is: do we want to keep the Sounds more or less as it is now, relatively pristine, or do we want to open it up to more industry?”
There is also the question of coastaloccupancy charges. At present, marine farmers do not pay anything to lease the public water space they use. “A landbased equivalent would be a farmer seeing some nice grazing land in a national park, saying, ‘I want to put my animals in there for 35 years and not pay a lease for it.’” By opposing the application, the council will be able to raise such issues, he notes. The proposal will be a crucial test of the EPA process and, whichever way it goes, will set a precedent for the Sounds and other parts of New Zealand. King Salmon claims a “silent majority” support the proposal, but veteran campaigner Pete Beech hopes communities in other areas will take note. If the proposal is successful, it could allow more public areas “to be cordoned off for private profit”, he believes.
Beech founded environmental group Guardians of the Sounds and spearheaded a campaign to slow down the fast ferries after residents noticed beaches were being damaged by the wake. The problem with salmon farms, he says, is that the damage is underwater, and is therefore less obvious. “It’s as if a Malaysian dairy company came over and was allowed to put 1000 cows on a hectare of DoC land, not pay any rent for using the land, the public can’t go on the farm any more, and we get left with the nitrates as well.”
Guardians of the Sounds is working with SOS to prepare for the hearing where they will present research to show the volume of nitrogen pollution going into the Sounds from nine more salmon farms would be the equivalent to discharge from a city of 500,000 people. In response, King Salmon notes the farms will cover only 0.01% of the Marlborough Sounds, and says the comparison with human sewage is “irrelevant”. “Waste emitted by our fish is equivalent to the waste emitted by three million fish – not from 500,000 people,” it says.
“King Salmon is relying on dilution of pollution as a solution,” says Grey. “We don’t believe it is, but no research has been done in the Marlborough Sounds on where the nitrates go as the waste flows away from salmon farms.”
With intensification of any kind of farming, there is a natural cycle of increased disease and ill health in the animals, whether you’re talking chickens, pigs or salmon, she says. Experience from overseas fish farms shows that at a certain stage diseases start building up and need to be treated with antibiotics and pesticides. “Once you get into that, it’s a slippery slope because you no longer have a pristine product that the world wants to pay premium prices for.”
The company has hit back at such criticisms, noting that unlike mammals, cold-blooded fish do not carry bacteria such as E coli and salmonella. And that so far, the salmon in New Zealand waters have been disease-free. In its environmental assessment, King Salmon concedes this might not last. “In the future, if the need arose … antibiotics, lice treatments or other animal remedies may need to be added to the feed,” the report says. But it also points to its reputation for “best-in-class” salmon-farming practices, and its “exceptional environmental record” so far. The company is the world’s biggest supplier of the king salmon variety, with 55% of the global market, and says it is “firmly committed to the sustainability and viability of a renewable resource with its success centring on maintaining the purity of the waters in which the salmon are farmed”.
Grey believes the company should be happy with its current operation. “It’s going well at the moment for King Salmon – they’ve got a premium product they can sell and they say demand exceeds supply. Fantastic, it’s a marketer’s dream. Take the premium prices and be happy. More is not necessarily better.”
Fishing for tourism
King Salmon has plans to boost tourism, particularly food-related tourism, says NZ King Salmon CEO Grant Rosewarne. “We believe the Marlborough region will become as recognised for its salmon as it is for wine.” The company rejects claims the new farms will deter tourists, noting the Sounds already have many mussel farms, and are well used by recreational users and the inter-island ferries. New Zealand salmon farming practices were recently acknowledged by the Global Aquaculture Performance Index as the world’s greenest.
SOS: saving space
Leona Plaisier, 17, has grown up with the Tui Nature Reserve, an award- winning conservation project at Waitata Bay that will be surrounded by four new salmon farms if NZ King Salmon’s expansion plans go ahead. Leona and her father, Brian, are on the committee of Sustain Our Sounds, the group set up to oppose the application.
Leona runs the SOS website and Facebook page, which can be challenging for a family off the grid. “I spend a lot of hours in the evening on the laptop because we don’t like to use power during the day – that’s when the solar panels are charging the battery.” By any measure, the Plaisiers live on a remote and special peninsula. Their 42ha property is a pocket of what the Marlborough Sounds used to look like, with some 900-year-old rimu still standing. But when Leona’s parents bought the land 18 years ago, there were few birds, the forest floor was bare and the canopy was dying back as possums, rats, pigs and stoats gorged themselves on the native trees and wildlife.
To save the bush, the predators had to go and that’s the job of Leona and her 15-year-old brother, Liam. Leona and her border/fox terrier Chase are the youngest certified rodent-detection dog team in New Zealand. “It took me two years to train her. I was really proud when we got certified. It means we can be called out by the Department of Conservation as well as working here. “It takes me two weeks every month to walk the grids and lines of traps through the bush. We’ve got 500 traps out – we don’t use any poison.”
Leona gets help from students and volunteers who come to work at Tui Nature Reserve, which was named in the top 10 Eco Destinations of the World by BBC Wildlife magazine and won the supreme prize at the 2009 Marlborough Environment Awards. The project relies on tourism and sponsorship, two sources of income that the family claims could be threatened by the new salmon farms. NZ King Salmon has been an important sponsor for the Tui Nature Reserve and the family thought long and hard before deciding to oppose its application.
“We support integrated management of the Sounds,” says Leona. “There’s already a King Salmon farm around the corner at Bulwer and many mussel farms in the bays. But this application is going for areas that are prohibited – they want more than their fair share. “We think tourism will go down if the farms go ahead. We have lots of overseas visitors who come to the Sounds for the nature and the beauty and what we’re doing to restore the environment. How’s it going to look to have all these salmon farms out our window?”