This Government's lack of business experience is nowhere more apparent than in its review of marine farming. It has just announced a nine-month extension of the two-year moratorium on new marine farms that was to expire in March. The development of this most promising new industry will thus have been suspended for the best part of three years by the time the moratorium is lifted, if indeed it does not miss another deadline.

Perhaps the Government believes that investors in this sort of activity will simply wait for as long as the Government wants to take to decide the regulations under which marine farms will operate. Anyone with business in their blood would know that private investment is easily discouraged by inordinate delay in public decisions. That can be read as a lack of commitment, threatening to expose the activity to equivocal treatment by those who wield public power.

Their concerns have been aroused by the regulatory proposals, which include a denial of an automatic right of renewal for those awarded seabed leases. That would mean that anyone investing their money and effort into establishing a marine farm could lose the lease after 10 or 20 years. It is not a prospect to encourage a sustained commitment of capital to an industry that holds immense potential to broaden this country's exports. The review is now complicated by the fact that aquaculture lies at the heart of Maori claims to customary ownership of the foreshore and seabed, which received a powerful boost from the Court of Appeal in June. The test case before the court concerned marine farming in the Marlborough Sounds and claimants insist their interest is not in restricting public access to beaches but entirely in the commercial use of tidal zones and seabed.

The Government's response, aimed at protecting public right of access for leisure, is often said to include a reservation for Maori of 20 per cent of marine farming areas. Those who claim customary ownership might not settle for less than a rental income from all marine farm tenders. The Government's proposed settlement, to constitute the foreshore and seabed "public domain", had a rough time at a round of consultative hui and a new proposal is said to be in preparation. Meanwhile, marine farming marks time.

But even before the Appeal Court dropped its bombshell, the Waitangi Tribunal had backed treaty-based challenges to the Government's proposed marine farming legislation. The Government has long known this industry was facing such complications but there seems to be no urgency about resolving them. A two-year moratorium should have been more than enough to negotiate a solution that might even have taken the impetus out of the Marlborough customary rights claim.

But even if it had proved not possible to settle with Maori interests within the two-year moratorium, a display of urgency on the Government's part would have given some reassurance to investors that it is aware of the importance of this industry and means to see that its growth is not unduly delayed. Fisheries Minister Pete Hodgson has felt the heat of the industry's concern and he at least seems to have the decency to be embarrassed about the delay. After making the announcement on Monday, he was not inclined to discuss it. But he must now ensure that this extension is the last in the long moratorium.

Investors, committed and potential, need to see early signs that the future of aquaculture is as high on the Government's priorities as a sensible solution to the legal status of foreshore and seabed. If there is one area in which the general and the Maori interest coincide, it is that undue delay in marine farming development will do no one any good.