New Zealand's endangered orca population will be compromised if a farm to catch mussel spat goes ahead on one of New Zealand's untouched coasts, say locals.
Applicant Peter Bull, who has mussel farms in the Firth of Thames and a processing plant in South Auckland, is seeking resource consent from the Waikato Regional Council for a 30ha spat farm in Mercury Bay, off Cooks Beach, Hahei and Whitianga.
The area is also a popular spot for bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, porpoise and seals.
Spat farming is the process where baby mussels - or spat - attach to rope on frames anchored in the water.
The long lines of rope are later removed and transported to a mussel farm.
The proposed operation - roughly the size of 40 rugby fields- would be the first commercial operation on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and opposed landowners are concerned it will "open the floodgates" for other industry.
Landowner and well-known New Zealand artist Andrew Barber, who represents Whauwhau Environmental Group, said he feared the mussel farm could entangle and injure orcas that feed on stingrays in the area.
His claim is supported by world-renowned orca researcher Dr Ingrid Visser who described the 30ha site as a series of traps that would injure or kill the mammals.
But Bull stands by his proposal and says the effects of mussel farming on whales and dolphins had been assessed by MPI and their assessment was that, in general, "the adverse effects of existing aquaculture on marine mammals are not presently considered significant issues."
In a research paper, Visser said stingrays avoided foraging killer whales by hiding in mussel farms.
"This directly impacts on the foraging success of the killer whales, as the physical nature of some of these structures excludes killer whales, and thereby prevents them foraging."
Two of the three pods of 200 orca in New Zealand frequent Mercury Bay at any time of year.
Barber said the orca would never return to the area if they got trapped or injured.
"It will throw out the balance of the ecology and forever change the marine life of the bay."
The land Barber is a part-owner of is home to a large wild population of little brown kiwi - partly thanks to a pest eradication programme the landowners are passionate about.
There are few permanent structures on the land - instead, Barber stays in a teepee and cooks on a campfire.
"I have three children and they absolutely love it here, sitting around the campsite looking out at seals and whales in the bay.
"They say we have 135 months to save the Earth from the environmental damage we have done - this proposed farm goes against all of that."
The land that the spat farm will be created offshore from is classified as having "outstanding natural features and landscapes" and "outstanding natural character" under the Thames Coromandel Proposed District Plan.
Barber wants the sea given the same protection the land has.
"You can't develop the land here - why should he be allowed to develop the sea?"
Bull's application points to the high mortality rate of spat, which is primarily collected from Ninety Mile Beach.
"The proposed farm would provide a more certain supply of spat for the future and provide more commercial certainty for the industry," the application reads.
"lt is also anticipated that locally caught spat would be more resilient, due to the reduced handling and transportation times."
Bull said bottlenose and common dolphins, together with Orcas, were present near the site but despite the existence and operation of mussel farms in many coastal locations in New Zealand "there have been no recorded significant adverse effects on dolphins caused by mussel farming in the Coromandel".
Bryde's whales are found between Cape Brett and East Cape. They also have a resident population within the Hauraki Gulf.
Bull said the area proposed for his spat catching farm was outside the recognised range for the resident population of Bryde's whales.
However, there had been two recorded entanglements of the whale; one in 1996 and another between 1996 and 2003.
"Since that time farming techniques have changed. Spat catching ropes are kept under greater tension. Despite the increase in the area used by aquaculture there have been no further entanglements."
The farm would be managed under the A+ Sustainable Management Framework, he said, which has measures to minimise the risk of marine mammal entanglement.
At the time of publication Waikato Regional Council had received eight submissions regarding the spat farm - seven in opposition and one neutral.
A council spokesperson said factors such as environmental impact and impact on sea life would be considered after submissions closed.
Submissions to the council on the proposed spat farm close on May 17.