We're likely to see a lot more marine farms in the Hauraki Gulf, Kaipara Harbour and around the rest of New Zealand's coast. Or at least that's what the Government thinks. As part of its broader reform agenda, it set up a technical advisory group to tell it how to grow aquaculture from $360 million today to a $1 billion-plus industry by 2025.
The group has just released its report. It is bound to be controversial in Auckland because of the potential for conflict with other users of the marine environment. Boating clubs in the region should be taking a close look, as should those with houses overlooking the sea. Submissions on the reform proposals close at www.fish.govt.nz on December 16.
Commercial aquaculture has been undertaken in New Zealand since the 1960s. The inshore waters are well suited to marine farming with 19,000 km of coastline and generally high water quality. Given the sector's dependence on a clean environment, it can be a useful "push" factor for cleaning up discharges of pollutants.
If done well, aquaculture is an environmentally sustainable and economically rewarding activity. Putting it in the right location and keeping densities low are vital, but it can have adverse environmental effects - impacting on marine mammals and other wild species, accumulation of heavy metals and localised water pollution.
The group, chaired by former Fisheries Minister Sir Doug Kidd, has done a good job overall. It says in its report: "The result of our recommendations will be a more effective regime which recognises the need to expand aquaculture opportunities without sacrificing the environmental standards and public character of the marine commons and recognises the rights of iwi, fishers, and other users of the coastal space."
The group notes that the present law, put in place in 2004, has seen no new marine farms established since then and is clearly not working. Instead it wants to mainstream aquaculture planning into normal Resource Management Act processes.
But then it gets carried away, proposing four further changes that mean that environmental hurdles would be lowered and we could get aquaculture in quite the wrong places.
Aquaculture does have a bright future ahead of it and the Government is right to target it as a growth sector. But it shouldn't get carried away and lower standards. We still need an environmental bottom line. Robust and effective environmental safeguards must be part of the new way forward.
Gary Taylor is with the Environmental Defence Society www.eds.org.nz