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Whales & dolphins part of marine farm research

Whales and dolphins part of research for marine farms

Whale and dolphin sightings in Bay of Plenty waters have been mapped for the first time as part of a million dollar aquaculture project by Environment Bay of Plenty.

Regional council staff have been astonished by the variety and quantity of marine mammals logged by charter boats over the last seven years. They include 10 different types of whales, including the southern right whale, orca, and humpback, blue and pilot whales. There have also been regular sightings of pods of more than 1000 dolphins.

For the project, Environment Bay of Plenty needed to know which types of marine mammals visit the region and in what numbers. It also tracked their locations.

When analysed by experts, the information will help identify offshore areas that may not be suitable for marine farming because they pose a risk to marine mammals. For example, the southern right whale is potentially vulnerable because it does not use sonar for guidance. This may increase its chance of becoming tangled in a marine farm’s ropes.

The study’s results will feed into a major, long-term science project that is key to the future of aquaculture in the region’s waters. One aspect of the two-pronged project involves mapping all activities, uses and values that make certain areas unsuitable for aquaculture. They include commercial navigation routes, commercial and recreational fishing areas, sites of significance to tangata whenua, and sites of ecological value.

The second aspect will answer “the very difficult question” of exactly how much aquaculture the Bay of Plenty can sustain, says the Environment Bay of Plenty’s group manager regulation and resource management, Paul Dell. “It is absolutely vital we know what level of farming the marine environment can handle without it affecting the local ecology or kaimoana resource,” he explains. “Our priority is to keep the marine environment safe.” Marine farming is a fast-growing and lucrative industry in New Zealand. Because it is fairly new in many parts of the country, many regional councils do not yet have proper policy frameworks for dealing with applications for larger marine farms. To allow time to catch up, the Government set a moratorium on new consents two years ago. It will be lifted in December 2004. Before then, Environment Bay of Plenty and other regional councils must start to create aquaculture management areas, or zones suitable for marine farms. Marine farming will be prohibited outside these areas.

Environment Bay of Plenty expects to complete the full science research project by December 2005. It will cost more than $1 million over three years.

The Bay of Plenty currently has three existing oyster farms in Ohiwa Harbour. Environment Bay of Plenty is also processing two marine farm applications that missed the moratorium. One application is for a mussel farm off the Opotiki coast and is currently under appeal in the Environment Court. The other, off Otamarakau, has been put on hold at the request of the applicant.

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