New Zealand's biggest salmon farmer has failed in a bid to alter compliance rules, after concerns it would widen a waste "footprint" in the Marlborough Sounds.
NZ King Salmon sought to tweak the terms governing two of its farms - in Te Hoiere/Pelorus Sound and Tōtaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound - arguing Marlborough District Council interpreted them too strictly.
Five of its nine farms were labelled non-compliant last year after failing to meet environmental standards the company had agreed to.
Environmentalists objected to the company bid which sent its application to a public hearing in June.
Some environmental groups argued NZ King Salmon's attempt to "change the consent conditions and not the farm" was a "cynical approach" which, if passed, rewarded "bad behaviour".
NZ King Salmon's lawyer Quentin Davies said the request had nothing to do with past failures, and was needed to resolve interpretation issues between it and the council.
The company argued consent compliance should be measured holistically against environmental standards, not individual markers, which was what the council practised.
Cawthron Institute coastal ecologist Dr Emma Newcombe, for NZ King Salmon, said random environmental changes could cause individual markers to rise over the agreed limit, resulting in non-compliance, without giving the overall picture.
The company believed the two farms at the centre of its request had been meeting consent conditions under its interpretation, despite the council ruling last year one had not.
Compliance had been judged against a farm's consent conditions and guidelines laid down by central and local government for environmentally responsible aquaculture.
NZ King Salmon's seafarms operations manager Mark Preece said the Waitata Reach farm was labelled non-compliant as there was an abundance of sea life at the edge of the farm.
Commissioner Sharon McGarry said in her decision, released earlier this month, this was likely an early indication that the farm's waste "footprint" was "significantly larger than predicted".
The same footprint caused NZ King Salmon to lose an application to expand its Waitata Reach farm last year.
Changes could be seen up to 800 metres from the pens, making the footprint 38 hectares wide.
By comparison the Waterlea Racecourse in Blenheim is just over 31 hectares across.
McGarry refused the company's application to alter consent rules.
She also turned down a separate request from the company to increase the amount of fish food dispensed at one of the farms from 3000 tonnes a year to 4000 tonnes a year because she didn't have enough data to make a decision.
She said the council's inspector, Cawthron Institute, often checked salmon farms outside peak feed seasons, when their environmental impacts were at their greatest. It had also moved "control" sites, tested different sites at different times, and had taken samples from sites that were close to other farms.
"There are many examples where results have been qualified [limited or modified] or dismissed as not important, and the council interpretation of consent conditions has been ignored.
"In my view, these are serious breaches of the conditions.
"It is up to the council, as the consent authority, to determine whether a consent holder is compliant with the conditions of consent. It is not for the consent holder to determine this ..."
Four of the groups that opposed the applications - Friends of Nelson Haven, Guardians of the Sounds, Marlborough Environment Centre and the Kenepuru and Central Sounds Residents Association - said they supported the decisions.
Guardians of the Sounds spokeswoman Clare Pinder, on behalf of the groups, said it was clear NZ King Salmon thought it could break the rules to meet its business targets.
"This decision supports our concerns and is telling New Zealand King Salmon to cut its pollution and stick to the rules. We hope NZ King Salmon heeds this message. It's a privilege to be farming for free in public water space, and this company is abusing that privilege as well as the environment," she said.
A NZ King Salmon spokesman said the company was disappointed with the result of the application and was considering its options.
"The purpose of the application was to align the consent with best management practice and we will continue to work to that end with interested parties.
"We are appreciative of support from council officers for the application.
"We are acutely aware of the privileges of farming in such a special location and don't take our responsibilities lightly."
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.