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Finfish Plan Swimming in Circles

Finfish Plan Swimming in Circles

By Geoffrey and Reihana Robinson
November 2, 2012

The future of industrial finfish farming in the Firth of Thames is murky at best.

For months, Waikato Regional Council has been stumbling over itself in an effort to please aquabusiness executives enough that a delayed tendering process for 300 hectares of industrial fish farm space can finally go ahead. The idea is for 6,000 tonnes of kingfish to eventually be sold each year from massive floating cages anchored along the Coromandel coast.

But while regional council has been huddling behind closed doors with seafood producers, the industry has been imploding across the Tasman. In a release to the Australian Stock Exchange two weeks ago, kingfish grower Clean Seas Tuna Ltd, based in South Australia, disclosed disastrous results both on the water and in the board room.

It turns out Clean Seas Tuna, which bills its cage-raised fish as “sustainable luxury” products, has been suffering massive losses in its kingfish pens, with an unidentified “mystery illness” wiping out close to half its entire 2012 stock and much of its year-older fish. The company now admits the disease, possibly some form of enteritis, has had a “devastating biological impact”. In plain English, this means tens of thousands of dead caged kingies. The report fails to mention to what degree the deadly disease may already have spread among local native kingfish stocks.

Earlier this year Waikato regional councillors hell bent on jump-starting finfish farming shrugged off a cautious management report that warned of risks from fouling, waste, disease and parasites. Tripped up by their own staff findings, councillors put their hard working PR department to work arguing WRC can manage most risk through the consent process. Good luck.

As to rosy WRC financial projections for caged kingfish farming and the promise of good jobs, the Clean Seas debacle tells a different story. The company reported its work force has been cut in half since the beginning of this year. On the ASX, even with support from profitable divisions, Clean Seas shares had melted down last month to less than one-quarter of their year-prior value and less than one-tenth of January 2010 levels.

While Clean Seas said it is “narrowing the causes” of its catastrophic kingfish losses, it admitted it was looking for a new “core investor”. All told, the South Australia kingfish story is an environmental, economic, and ethical disaster – one that should be a warning for the Coromandel.

But back in Hamilton East, WRC has been trying all year to give aquabusiness execs what they want in order to attract the dirty caged kingfish business. After an initial tender process for marine space flopped, WRC tried asking for “expressions of interest” instead. That process also went nowhere.

Seafood giants like Sanford and Malaysian owned NZ King Salmon want certainty on coastal occupation charges for their private commercial use of public space. According to an internal WRC report, industry also wants greater certainty on rules and policies affecting their operations.

WRC’s suggested coastal charges of $500 per hectare, suggested to industry reps earlier this year, obviously went down like a lead sinker. So private meetings among WRC, industry, and Government representatives in a so-called “working group” were held to address the seafood producer wish list. Waikato residents can expect agreement on policies, rules and costs acceptable to aquabusiness when revised tender materials are published soon. With industry execs playing hard-to-get, the public will likely net out next to nothing and environmental protection will take a back seat.

In a revealing series of internal emails from April 24 obtained by the Robinsons, regional council CEO Bob Laing proved just whom he and WRC are working for. Laing admitted that in a “lengthy discussion” with industry group Aquaculture NZ chief executive Gary Hooper, he had “indicated to Gary that we would guarantee to use the coastal charges from the aqua industry for the benefit of the industry and that we would agree with the industry on the use of the coastal marine charge funds.”

Trying to keep his business-friendly boss out of trouble, senior policy advisor Graeme Silver responded by urging “caution in any discussion of how coastal occupation charges will be spent”. Silver reminded the eager-to-please Laing that the monies “should be spent for the public’s benefit, not the industry’s.”

But just to confirm priorities at what once was “Environment Waikato”, WRC has adopted final weighting percentages it will apply next year in evaluating tenders for industrial fish farming in those pristine Firth waters.

Environmental management practices of the applicant will count for just 15%. Sustainable management of natural resources will count for only 10%. The rest is all about the money.

ENDS

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