Ambitious plans to turn the open ocean into a multi-billion dollar seafood farming industry are edging closer to reality with the government's recent release of guidelines. But one company leading the way is finding unexpected obstacles.
New Zealand King Salmon wants to be the country's first open ocean fin fish farmer on a 1792 hectare site in Cook Strait.
It lodged a 35-year resource consent application with Marlborough District Council at the start of July last year thinking it would be introducing the first salmon stocks by now.
But coronavirus, and opposition to the project, have held it up.
"Because we thought everyone would be in favour of this we just didn't anticipate the amount of data we'd have to collect, the amount of modelling, all the science that we've had to provide to go in the open ocean," says New Zealand King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne.
Unlike Norway which has had no environmental barriers to its massive open ocean salmon farms, New Zealand is "much more conservative".
He tells The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly why the site seven kilometres north of Cape Lambert in the Marlborough Sounds was selected, and what the farm will look like when it is built.
"That piece of space is not as high energy," says Rosewarne. "It’s in a unique spot that has shelter from all but 11 degrees exposure so it’s either sheltered by D'Urville Island from the west, it’s sheltered by the Marlborough Sounds from the east and the south, and it is even sheltered from the north by the North Island. So just that little spot means we can farm in the open ocean with existing technology."
Open ocean farming has been identified as a key part of the strategy to build acquaculture from a $600 million a year industry to $3 billion by 2035. The government has drafted a guide to sustainable open ocean farming to help councils set and manage resource consent conditions for applicants.
New Zealand King Salmon underlined the argument for developing open ocean farming when it announced the project last year.
"With over four hundred million hectares of ocean space on New Zealand's doorstep - the fourth largest marine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world - farming a tiny proportion of the ocean could provide a significant future source of healthy, sustainable protein," it said in a statement.
Most of the submissions favour the proposal, with about 14 against it. Those opposed are Ngati Kuia, DOC, think-tank McGuiness Institute, volunteer group Guardians of the Sounds and community organisation Friends of Nelson Haven and Tasman Bay.
Although Rosewarns says they can open ocean farm “with an environmental footprint that’s even difficult to measure”, opposition groups say he’s downplaying the damage, and point to previous resource consent decisions as reason for their distrust.
In one, where commissioner John Mills declined an application for an increase in surface area for the existing Waitata Salmon Farm, he said he found it troubling that NZ King Salmon couldn’t satisfactorily explain its non-compliance with resource consents, and was already exceeding the area it was supposed to be farming by 14 hectares.
Local democracy reporter Chloe Ranford told The Detail that people are concerned about inadequate research.
"It’s not that they don't want this to happen, it’s just that it’s never happened before."
NZ King Salmon's track record with failed compliances in its inshore farms also made people wary. But Ranford says the "community supports it long term. It's going to bring a lot of money to Marlborough, it’s going to bring a lot of jobs to Marlborough … but they don't want this process to be rushed, they want it to be thought out well researched and if all of that happens it will be a win, win, win for everyone."
*Bev Doole, who works pro bono for the Marlborough Environment Centre, which submitted in opposition to the NZ King Salmon proposal, has written a rebuttal to this story which you can access here.