Government releases new guide to open ocean farming

7:00 pm on 5 November 2020

New Zealand's largest salmon farmer hopes new national guidelines for "open ocean" farming will not require zero environmental impacts, as it looks to set up the country's first ocean farm.

A guide to sustainable open ocean farming has been drafted to create a consistent set of rules for farms across the country's varied environments and councils.

Fisheries New Zealand aquaculture director Mat Bartholomew​ said the new guidelines should help councils set and manage resource consent conditions if marine farms asked to go "open ocean" in the future.

It would also help with decision-making on consent applications, he said. The Marlborough District Council is processing an application to set up a salmon farm in the waters off the Marlborough Sounds.

The national guidelines would share principles with Marlborough's own best management practice guidelines, put down to ensure salmon farms were being sustainable.

Compliance would still be judged against a farm's resource consent conditions, set by individual councils.

To develop the guidelines, Fisheries New Zealand enlisted the help of scientists and stakeholders with a strong background in researching and managing salmon farms.

A Marlborough District Council report tabled last month said there were also multiple workshops involving regional councils, the Department of Conservation, Te Ohu Kaimoana and aquaculture industry representatives.

Overseas experience included

Bartholomew said Fisheries NZ had sought information on the effects open ocean farms had in other countries.

"Given our knowledge and understanding will develop quickly, the guidelines include a review cycle, so they can be improved as knowledge progresses," the director said.

Guidelines would be drawn up for water quality, the benthic environment, marine mammals and seabirds.

A draft version of the guidelines was being reviewed by stakeholders, with an expectation that the new rules will be signed off before the end of the year.

One of those stakeholders is New Zealand King Salmon, which applied last year to build a farm in a 1792-hectare ocean site and farm 8000 tonnes of king salmon a year.

New Zealand King Salmon's application for a new salmon farm (pictured in red) divides the nation.

Highlighted in red is NZ King Salmon's proposed new open ocean farm, which it lodged a resource consent for in July last year. Photo: Google Maps

NZ King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne said he thought open ocean farms should only be required to increase biodiversity and native species beneath pens. If those factors increased then the company should be able to "farm to our heart's content" in the open ocean.

"But it's looking a whole lot more complicated than that."

Trivial details feared

He was concerned the guidelines would be weighed down by trivial details, and continue to hold the aquaculture industry to a "perfection" standard of zero impacts.

"If a dairy farm saw an increase in native species compared to what was there before, we'd be celebrating. But with aquaculture, any change is perceived as bad.

"Although we are good, we can paradoxically fail our consent conditions due to this perfection standard."

NZ King Salmon said it was answering concerns raised by its open ocean consent application, with plans for consent hearings in April next year, and a decision in May.

It had spent $1.3 million on the application so far, he said.

Photos taken under New Zealand King Salmon's Te Pangu farm.

An image taken under New Zealand King Salmon's Te Pangu farm which was deemed non-compliant earlier this year. Photo: Supplied

The government believed open ocean farming was key to achieving its goal of turning aquaculture from a $600m to a $3 billion industry by 2035.

A business case jointly commissioned by Fisheries New Zealand and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise estimated open ocean fish farming could make $2bn alone by 2049.

The colder waters of the open ocean had the potential to provide great resilience in the face of climate change. Open ocean farms were also expected to speed up the productivity and sustainability of the primary sector.

The United Nations recognised about 6 million square kilometres as New Zealand, and the vast majority of that space was ocean. Aquaculture currently took place close to the shore, taking up less than one percent of the coast.

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