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Murky “Plan B” for Fish Farming

Murky “Plan B” for Fish Farming

by Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson
April 8, 2013

Waikato Regional Council is ready to bait up with a big concession to aquabusiness in its so-far frustrated bid to jump-start industrial finfish farming off the Coromandel Coast.

With a new round of promotion and a last-gasp attempt to lure bidders for marine space scheduled to begin this month, WRC is holding its own unadvertised “Plan B” in reserve.

According to council documents, if the upcoming call for tenders attracts insufficient interest, WRC may take the extraordinary step of granting itself fish farm resource consents that it would turn around and sell or lease cleanly to seafood firms.

Come hell or high water, a servile WRC and its Government handlers are intent on avoiding embarrassment from their touted, but struggling, aquabusiness development scheme. And the council’s back-pocket consent plan would prove again that industry interests trump those of the natural environment.

The way the process is supposed to work is for companies to submit tenders for the available 240 ha in the Coromandel Marine Farming Zone and 72 ha near Wilson Bay in the upper Firth of Thames, with proposals being evaluated on the basis of economic and, to a lesser degree, environmental factors. Successful bidders would be authorised to apply for resource consents to carry out their plans. At that stage, because fish farms in public space are likely deemed “significant”, the public could make submissions with rights of appeal in Environment Court. The potentially expensive consent process is where specific conditions, terms and limitations would be set to fit any given proposal.

The regional council’s secret “Plan B” would do away with much of that.

After a failed effort more than a year ago to attract initial tenders for marine space in the Firth and Hauraki Gulf and a subsequent flubbed effort to tie down coastal occupation charges to be paid by fish farmers, WRC started huddling with the seafood industry and its supporters at the Ministry for Primary Industry to reduce uncertainties and financial exposure for potential aquabusiness bidders.

According to internal council emails in October and November, WRC and ministry staff considered skipping the tender process entirely and going straight to “Plan B”. They also considered sticking with the original tender process but having WRC or another agency like MPI jump in with their own tender bid. Staff noted some local and offshore interest in the available marine space, but nothing to take to the bank, with the outcome of the planned tender round far from certain. In the end, WRC and MPI agreed to proceed with the rejigged tender process (now scheduled for June and July) and to keep “Plan B” in the tackle box -- for now.

It’s easy to see what’s wrong with WRC’s “Plan B” should this tender round also sputter. Take polluting nitrogen (nutrient) and fish feed discharge limits, for starters.

Discharge limits of 800 tonnes of nitrogen and 13,600 tonnes of feed have been established for the Coromandel zone. An environmentally friendly company could, however, eventually submit a proposal offering to limit discharges to a lower amount than rules allow, thereby reducing adverse environmental impacts. It might also offer to limit chemicals and pharmaceuticals, undertake extra escape monitoring, or take other precautionary measures.

But if WRC issues itself a consent to onsell, it will grant the most generous nitrogen and feed discharge limits allowable and set other conditions that minimally meet the rules, but don’t go any further. It has to keep the resource consent it will sell sufficiently attractive to buyers. In other words, it is guaranteed not to get the best deal possible for the environment.

If it falls back on “Plan B”, the Once Were Environment Waikato will also have a super-sized conflict of interest. An internal WRC November 12 “discussion paper” confirmed just that and more.

In a cautionary list of the “implications” of “Plan B”, staff highlighted the obvious -- an “apparent conflict of interest of being both applicant and regulator”. They go on to warn the plan could be seen as “biased” and “heavily weighted in the industry’s favour at the expense of the environment and the proper public process”. They also note that costs of applying for and processing the consent (NZ King Salmon just spent millions in Marlborough) would fall on ratepayers and taxpayers and that whatever consent council ultimately gives itself would be relatively inflexible.

One warning sums it up. Under the heading “Public Reaction”, staff admit their “Plan B” process “is likely to generate considerable opposition”.

When it comes to fishing for big business, a degraded marine environment is just unfortunate bycatch.

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Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues. Send your comments to robinsonsreport@gmail.com

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