By PHILIP ENGLISH
Seaside communities are rallying against a new wave of mussel farming industry applications for marine farms up and down the country.
From Bluff to Akaroa and now on the western side of the Firth of Thames in the Hauraki Gulf, applications for mussel farms or mussel spat farms are reviving debate on the use of public coastal waters for the $200 million-a-year industry.
Applications for more than 10 sq km of coastal water in the Firth of Thames off Kaiaua have roused local tempers so much that hundreds of locals are organising for a fight.
The rush of applications has been blamed on the voluntary industry closure of Kaitaia mussel spat farms because of toxic algal bloom problems and strong opposition to mussel farming in the heavily used Marlborough Sounds.
Mussel farm opponents also believe that with all the best sites in the Marlborough Sounds taken, the biological productivity of the waters has been adversely affected, forcing the industry elsewhere.
The Kaiaua opposition arose when applications for two 500ha mussel spat farms were advertised for public submissions just before Christmas last year.
The advertisement was not picked up by Kaiaua locals until February 5, one week before the closing date for submissions to be made to the Auckland Regional Council.
A lack of consultation by the applicant, Thames Mussels Ltd, which is understood to have kept the proposal under wraps for as long as possible for commercial reasons, backfired when Kaiaua locals discovered the plan at the last minute, thus creating a negative atmosphere.
Two applications are on hold because the ARC has requested more information.
It is unlikely the applications will be formally heard this year but in the meantime four more applications for several more square kilometres of water off Waimangu Pt, Kaiaua, have been lodged with the ARC.
The ARC transitional coastal plan prohibits new mussel farms along the Kaiaua coast.
But a recent ruling by the Environment Court that mussel farming and mussel spat farming are different has opened the area up to the spat farming applications.
But a spokesman for the Kaiaua locals, Ron Christensen, the chairman of the Kaiaua Residents and Ratepayers' Association, said spat was defined as mussels growing up to an edible 40mm, causing concern that spat farms would evolve into mussel farms.
Mr Christensen said he believed the industry was in "gold rush" mode and, having spoiled the productivity of the Marlborough Sounds, was moving elsewhere.
"And we are not satisfied yet as to where the algal blooms are coming from."
Mr Christensen said the Kaiaua Coast was a developing tourism area being promoted as the Pacific Highway Coast noted for its migratory birds and undeveloped character.
He said, if granted, the applications would result in spat farms along about 20km of coast
"It would ruin the attraction of the place. For the tourists to come down and see a sea full of black mussel farms, I don't think that will help us.
"I would say the biggest problem we've got is the visual impact of them and the size of them."
Mr Christensen said the issue had stirred residents into attending the biggest local meeting for years in March. About 230 attended.
"I was amazed. To get 20 or 30 people to a meeting here you are doing well. I nearly cried when I saw so many people turn up at the hall. Every seat was taken. People were standing at the back."
The executive officer for the Aquaculture Council, Graeme Coates, said marine farming worldwide was growing at a phenomenal rate because most fisheries had reached or surpassed their sustainable yield, but demand for seafood was growing.
Mr Coates said that over the past three years returns from mussel farms in the Marlborough Sounds had "sky-rocketed, or put it this way, they have been good" but space for more farms was limited.
"People are starting to look at other areas. Everyone is firing in applications. It is not necessarily the industry's problem because anybody can apply."
The Kaiaua Citizens and Ratepayers' Association can be contacted on 09-232-2679.
By PHILIP ENGLISH