Plans for deepwater salmon farming in Cook Strait have run into early opposition, surprising New Zealand King Salmon, which believes its proposals will improve environmental outcomes.

However, King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne still believes that resource consent hearings set down from April 28 to May 1 in Blenheim will go ahead as planned.

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"We were surprised," Rosewarne said of submissions from the Department of Conservation, the McGuinness Institute and the Environmental Defence Society. All claimed the proposal for salmon farming between five and 12 kilometres north of Cape Lambert, which is on an outer tip of the Marlborough Sounds, had too little information about a range of potential environmental impacts.

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"We thought we should be able to provide less information when the proposal is for a better environmental outcome," Rosewarne said, referring to the environmental impacts of the company's operations at nine existing sites in the Marlborough Sounds, where many years of local opposition have stifled its growth plans.

Its sites have more recently suffered because of a growing pattern of high summer seawater temperatures, which has led to higher rates of fish deaths. This has reduced total production and forced the company to change the way it farms salmon, particularly at sites where there are limited tidal flows and temperatures tend to be higher.

The so-called 'Blue Endeavour' plan has attracted a slew of positive submissions from the seafood industry, the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce, export customers and a range of individuals who support the proposal, which seeks to use techniques pioneered in Norway, which has a far larger industry that produces Atlantic salmon. King Salmon's high-margin Pacific 'chinook' variety is more sought-after and valuable and the company is unable to meet total potential demand.

The Environmental Defence Society, which took King Salmon to court and won a landmark case regarding the impact of salmon farms on 'outstanding natural landscapes', says in its submission that it wants to support offshore salmon farming.

"This is the first time anyone has proposed a fin-fish farm of this scale in New Zealand and perhaps in the world. It is in one sense a welcome change from continuing to pile pressure on inshore sites but also raises important questions about the environmental effects on seabirds, marine mammals, the benthic environment and possibly landscape," said EDS executive director Gary Taylor.

"We expect delays in reaching a hearing stage as further information will be needed to satisfy decision-makers. While we have serious questions about the proposal, we nonetheless respect the ambition and innovation shown by King Salmon. In the best-case scenario, if adverse effects can be properly avoided or mitigated, this could see salmon farming moving out of the conflict-ridden Marlborough Sounds."

However, the society believes there is "significant uncertainty as to whether these issues can be adequately addressed under the current proposal" and says the proposed site still overlaps with areas of outstanding natural character in a proposed Marlborough Environment Plan.

DoC director-general Lou Sanson's submission says the consent application would provide King Salmon with "considerable flexibility to modify and expand the activity beyond the scope of what has been evaluated in the assessment of environmental effects."

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The application "does not adequately model or address the adverse effects" and DoC says that adaptive management proposals to manage adverse effects are "inadequate."

The McGuinness Institute, an independent environmental think-tank, goes further, saying the proposal contains "extremely inadequate assessment of increased bio-security risk" and suggests land-based fish farms are a better option.

The large-scale application of a fish-farming method not previously tried in New Zealand should not be allowed to take an "adaptive management" approach but instead apply a precautionary approach, says the institute's chief executive, Wendy McGuinness, who has long championed efforts to curtail King Salmon's Marlborough Sounds operations.

The institute argues the application is "nationally significant" because it is likely to be "the first of a number of applications that will facilitate the transition from inshore to offshore farming."

However, documents on the Marlborough District Council website also show that on Dec. 12 Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage declined an application by submitters on the proposal to have the Blue Endeavour resource consent application 'called in' for a special fast-track consenting process by the Environmental Protection Authority rather than local government.

"I consider this proposed activity is not significant on a national scale" and was therefore "not, or is not part of, a proposal of national significance," Sage wrote in her decision.

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Seafood New Zealand notes in its submission that a transition from inshore to offshore fish-farming will be vital if the government's new target of $3 billion annual turnover for the aquaculture industry - currently around $600 million a year - is to be achieved.

Offshore fish-farming represented "a challenging but necessary future for the New Zealand aquaculture industry."

- BusinessDesk