"We need quick action or it's going to kill our fish. I can't get the Government or anybody else to understand that - they're more fixated on climate change, air temperature and drought."
Grant Rosewarne's frustration burns up the phone line. The managing director of NZ King Salmon has just been asked how the company's quest for resource consent to develop New Zealand's first open ocean salmon farm is going.
Not swimmingly, apparently.
The "it" threatening Rosewarne's fish is the warming East Australian Current flowing down from Indonesia and steadily creeping further east into Pelorus Sound, the largest of the Marlborough Sounds. It's even starting to warm the water a little in Queen Charlotte Sound, he says.
Farmed salmon - particularly the elite king species which is the hardest to farm anyway - don't do well in marine heatwaves; there have been two of those in the past three years, and all of King Salmon's eight farms are in the warming waters of the Sounds.
King Salmon, one of the world's five farmers of this premium species and producer of 50 per cent of global supply, wants to start raising fish in the cold, faster currents of Cook Strait. But one year on from filing a costly 1000-plus page consent application bristling with expert reports to the Marlborough District Council, the company is no nearer its goal and more out of pocket.
Rosewarne says the requests for more reports and more modelling just keep coming. He has just dropped $250,000 on a report on the likely impact of the farm on horse mussels, already covered in the Cawthron Institute reports commissioned by the company.
What irks Rosewarne is that horse mussels aren't endangered; they're abundant in the Sounds and can be commercially gathered under the fisheries quota scheme. If he was bloody-minded he could buy quota and gather them. And horse mussels have for years been living side by side with some of King Salmon's farms - as attested by Cawthron scientists.
The listed company has applied for a 35-year coastal resource consent to develop an initial two farms 7km north of Cape Lambert, near the tip of the Sounds. The development is called Blue Endeavour.
Rosewarne says the farms will generate about $200 million a year and create 300 jobs. That's in addition to the revenue and 500-plus jobs at its existing inshore farms - disappointingly for opponents who want the farms gone, the company isn't suggesting Blue Endeavour will replace them.
The application attracted 56 submissions, most in support. Fourteen submitters, including environmental groups, iwi and the Department of Conservation are calling for the council to turn it down, while another three support it in part or with provisos.
A hearing was to have been held in September but that's not going to happen. The council says the company has yet to provide an extra report requested in December on landscape and natural character aspects. This was covered by an independent expert in the application, but the council got another expert to review that, who said more information was needed.
Cue more Rosewarne frustration. "It'll be over the horizon, there's no landscape to see. You won't be able to see it from the land!"
More proof, he says, that the Resource Management Act (RMA) just doesn't work for aquaculture.
King Salmon's application coincided with last year's Government announcement that it would work with the aquaculture industry to build it into a $3 billion earner by 2035. Among other tools, the strategy would incorporate the development of open ocean farms.
So why, asks Rosewarne, hasn't the Government stepped in to enable Blue Endeavour to skip the RMA rigmarole?
As he pitches it, King Salmon is in a race against climate change - and changing technology. It's possible the technology proposed for the farms will be redundant by the time all the red tape is done with, and the company will have to apply all over again. "This industry's only 30 years old so it's developing like lightning.
"The Government to their credit has come up with a strategy for aquaculture, they've acknowledged its low environmental footprint and the huge value it creates and that it's a healthy product.
"They also agree the effects of salmon farming are fully reversible and self-remediating in a short space of time. So why, if this is all true and we have a strategy - they wrote it so they must believe it - aren't they enabling this to go ahead?"
There's certainly plenty of ducking going on in the Beehive over King Salmon's project.
Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash announced the aquaculture strategy but his office told the Herald he is not able to approve King Salmon's application.
"Marine farming is managed under the Resource Management Act and none of the pathways to a decision lead to the Minister of Fisheries," it said. In the same statement it declared "this Government is committed to sustainable open ocean aquaculture" and "open ocean aquaculture will be the next generation of marine aquaculture growth".
Conservation Minister and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage, whose powers under the RMA include the ability to "call in" proposals of national significance and refer them to a board of inquiry or the Environment Court, says she won't be doing that for Blue Endeavour.
"I recognise the application is the first open ocean aquaculture application and covers a large application area. However I consider the proposed activity is not significant on a national scale."
Also, the Marlborough District Council has advised her it is capable of processing this application, given its experience considering aquaculture ventures.
Sage did however call in a previous King Salmon application for resource consents for new sites in the Sounds. That produced a landmark 2014 Supreme Court decision that found "outstanding natural landscapes" were a reason to turn down six of nine proposed new sites. King Salmon had wanted to move several of its farms to the new sites for better production and environmental outcomes.
The RMA looks set to be an election issue, with a Government-commissioned review panel this week saying it should be structurally reformed, and new Opposition leader Judith Collins promising to repeal it if National wins.
Fisheries NZ and the Ministry for the Environment have also just announced new RMA aquaculture regulations effective from December 1 which will "streamline" consent applications - but this only relates to existing farms which want to change species and structures, not proposals for new ventures.
What does the public think of King Salmon's plan?
Supportive submitters are mainly individuals, small businesses and business groups which like the economic prospects for the upper South Island and NZ Inc.
Those saying "no" include the Department of Conservation, Sounds tangata whenua Ngāti Kuia, Marlborough environmental and conservation groups, the Environmental Defence Society, the NZ Sport Fishing Council, Forest & Bird, the Southern Inshore Fisheries company and Sea Shepherd. The Ministry for Primary Industries supports the application in part.
Opponents' concerns include the potential negative effects for marine mammals, seabirds and the seafloor, and threats to biodiversity, habitats and ecosystems.
Many opponents criticised a lack of detail, alleging plans were vague on managing the venture after consent. King Salmon's application includes management plans for waste, biosecurity, marine mammals and sharks, and the seafloor, with independent experts' reports on all these aspects.
The Friends of Nelson Haven and Tasman Bay group described it as "a mega commercial experiment with uncertain environmental outcomes" and called for a pilot study.
Guardians of the Sounds wanted King Salmon to take its idea much further out, into waters 150m deep. It said the application represented "a gold rush mentality for water space".
Canada-based Sea Shepherd put the boot into New Zealand's largest independent science entity the Cawthron Institute, which wrote several impact reports for King Salmon.
"We respectfully ask [the council] to reflect if they have ever read a negative report produced by this organisation for any of its clients," said the group. Sea Shepherd is taking legal action in the US against New Zealand for its alleged failure to protect the endangered Maui and Hector's dolphins.
For the record, Cawthron Institute didn't give King Salmon's application an easy pass on any impact aspect - certainly not on marine mammals.
Noting that at the time of reporting, exact details of pen numbers and types had yet to be confirmed, the institute said the greater area was "important" for a large number of whale, dolphin and porpoise species and seals, and a "vital" migration corridor for several whale species.
"While the proposed farm area represents a very small fraction of the total habitat available to support these marine mammal species, it potentially constitutes important winter habitat for southern right whales and forms part of humpback whales' northern migration corridor.
"Marlborough Sound waters also support sub-populations of nationally threatened bottlenose dolphins, Hector's dolphin and orca, which need to be considered."
The main effects of King Salmon's proposal were possible habitat displacement or avoidance and entanglement risk, said Cawthron.
"While the overall likelihood of any adverse effects is considered low, the consequences of a rare event such as the fatal entanglement of a threatened species warrants appropriate mitigation actions. To ensure the most appropriate measures are in place, an update of the current Marine Management Plan prior to commencing operations is recommended, along with several best management practices regarding the set-up and operation of pen ocean marine farms that can help further reduce the risks of entanglement and other adverse effects."
Cawthron's report said there were still knowledge gaps and uncertainty around how marine mammals would see and hear open ocean farm structures, and importantly, their reactions to farms.
Recreational fishing advocate the NZ Sport Fishing Council alleged "mass deaths" at King Salmon farms and a reluctance to talk about them. It says the site is on a whale migration path and in a popular fishing area. Rosewarne counters that the company, like other salmon farmers, has long published mortality numbers on a publicly accessible industry website, and he's long been telling anyone who will listen that climate change is killing the salmon.
Despite being a low carbon emitter, salmon farming stirs high emotion in New Zealand.
The experienced board of inquiry that heard King Salmon's previous proposals "agreed that none of us have ever experienced the level of vitriol that was palpable in the hearing room".
Intemperate language, allegations of corruption, false claims of unprofitability, objections to King Salmon being partly owned by foreign investors and highly exaggerated claims about environmental impacts were the norm, said the board, which noted that many of the excessive claims were made by people who had not read the proposals or given any weight to expert and conservative evidence. That process cost King Salmon $11 million and to Rosewarne's great frustration, the board gave weight to such submissions anyway.
What King Salmon is proposing is a staged development of two end-to-end farms.
Each would be 200m wide by 500m long, which includes 10 pens and a feed barge. That is the visible part; beneath are moorings which take each farm's size to 1.5km long and 1.2km wide, though these can't be seen. Cawthron said the proposal area covers 1800ha of water space in total.
Each set of pens would comprise up to eight plastic circles with a circumference of up to 200m each. The water at the site ranges from 60m to 165m deep. The pens, made of nets supported by mooring lines, would descend about 30m. The nets would be kept taut and colours used to minimise whale interaction.
A King Salmon staffer told the Herald the area under the site had been trawled bare, which tends to support the company's claim that farming can only stabilise and improve seafloor biodiversity.
In salmon farming, the number one cost is feed. It's also what critics and the public want to know about because of the effects of waste - on the seafloor from the fish themselves, on marine life and as an attraction for sharks, other fish, and seabirds.
King Salmon's application says there will be a maximum discharge of up to 1000 tonnes of feed a year - into each pen.
That compares with 4500 tonnes for the total Clay Point farm, and 5500 tonnes for the Te Pangu farm, King Salmon's biggest farms, both in Tory Channel.
But the Blue Endeavour pens would be well over twice the size of pens at those farms.
Fully stocked, the planned pens would host 100,000 fish apiece, Currently, there are about 65,000 fish per pen at Clay Point and Te Pangu.
The RMA application said each pen would produce about 500 tonnes of fish.
There would be cameras under the pens. As soon as the fish stop feeding, the supply is turned off, says King Salmon.
Feed is in pellet form and imported from Tasmania because the industry here isn't big enough to support a factory. According to Consumer NZ, a major part of a farmed salmon's diet comes from abattoir by-products – off-cuts from poultry processing, including feathermeal, as well as bloodmeal from cattle, pigs and sheep.
Rosewarne says the company tries to feed fish as close as possible to a natural diet, with protein, lipids and minerals. He says fish trimmings are also in the pellets and for customers who don't want animal protein, there's a feed option with more vegetable protein. King Salmon does not use antibiotics and Rosewarne says sea lice, the bane of overseas salmon farms, are not a problem here.
Being fattened in the Cook Strait pens would be the king of king salmon, the rare giant tyee.
In British Columbia, where the species originated, "tyee" means "chief". The fish grow to more than 13.5kg compared to the average king salmon which weighs in at 5kg, and are sought after by chefs for their large cuts, and by diners for their taste, texture, colour and Omega oil content.
The Cook Strait-farmed tyee will head for Michelin-starred and other top restaurants overseas.
"They're the Wagyu beef of the sea and we sell it for the same price as bluefin tuna," says Rosewarne.
"If we can produce more tyee it will help take the pressure of the bluefin tuna fishery."
Four of the world's five king salmon farmers are in New Zealand and NZ King Salmon is the biggest of them.
He likens it to farming deer compared to sheep. "They're a larger, more powerful, more flighty animal."
The "sheep" of the farmed salmon world are the Atlantic salmon species, farmed in large volumes in places such as Norway.
Next time you grab a pack of salmon at the supermarket, the fine print will more than likely say it is Atlantic salmon. New Zealand - including King Salmon - imports it because we don't grow enough salmon to meet demand.
The company was "laughed at" during the previous consent process when it claimed that it would have to import Atlantic salmon because of the shortage, says Rosewarne.
"But we have people ringing up wanting salmon for weddings and can't get enough, so now we import Atlantic from Norway, Denmark and Germany.
"We think our [king] sales potential is about 360,000 tonnes a year - though we won't get to that in my lifetime or my children's lifetime. Right now we produce 8000 tonnes. But there are massive opportunities overseas and the margins are excellent."
The total global salmon market is about 3.6 million tonnes - that's farmed and wild, with farmed fish the biggest contributor. King salmon accounts for just 0.7 per cent of the world's farmed salmon population.
King Salmon envisages that farming in the open ocean will double the company's existing production.
"There are just so many pluses. The value of aquaculture is $20 million per hectare. What's the value of forestry per hectare? $1000."
NZ King Salmon
• Listed on the NZX and ASX
• 40 per cent owned by Malaysia's Oregon Group
• 10 per cent owned by China Resources
• HQ is in Nelson
• Brands: Ora King, Regal, Southern Ocean
• Markets: 44 per cent NZ; 56 per cent export