Environmentalists concerned after government beats Marlborough to new aquaculture rules

Environmentalists are calling for resource consent renewals to have a kill clause after Marlborough failed to release new marine farming rules before the government.

The six Marlborough Sounds conservation groups had hoped the Proposed Marlborough Environment Plan would include new marine farming rules but the final version was released earlier this year without an aquaculture chapter as it had not gone out for public feedback.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is now a month away from releasing its own marine farming rules, and the groups feared “inappropriate” farms would take advantage of those rules.

Under the ministry’s National Environmental Standard (NES) for marine aquaculture, in effect from 1 December, resource consents could be renewed for a minimum of 20 years and did not need to go out for community feedback.

Instead, councils would determine what got the go-ahead without public input.

The new regulations aimed to make it easier for mussel and salmon farmers to apply for consents while creating a consistent set of rules for farms across New Zealand.

A document written ahead of the new rules said in the past, public input required more time and money to be spent, and could possibly affect investor confidence.

A Fisheries New Zealand report from June said the public should have had their say on marine farms through council’s plans, but in a joint statement the groups pointed out this had not yet happened in Marlborough.

Even if the council released its aquaculture chapter before the new regulations came into effect, it would be unable to wrap up the chapter’s hearing and appeal process in time, the groups said.

The groups worried the new rules would allow “inappropriate” marine farms to be granted decade-long consents without public feedback on the adverse effects.

“To now deny the public the opportunity of a say for another generation is undemocratic,” the six groups said.

Signing off on the statement was the Kenepuru and Central Sounds Residents Association, the Clova Bay Residents Association, East Bay Conservation Society, Guardians of the Sounds, Friends of Nelson Haven and Tasman Bay, and the Marlborough Environment Centre.

Each group was a regular submitter on marine farm consents in the Marlborough Sounds in a bid to ensure environmental protection was being prioritised – some having taken up the gauntlet from as early as the 1970s.

The groups’ solution to the issue was “simple”: the council should adopt a transitional consent renewal process while its aquaculture chapter was being completed, they said.

Clova Bay Residents Association chairman Trevor Offen said, for example, the council could approve 20-year marine farming consents with a condition the consents ended if they breached the new aquaculture rules.

“It means, ‘you can stay in the meantime, but if you turn out to be inappropriate later, you would stop farming’.

“That would be a … fair and easy solution.”

The alternative was the council not applying the new marine farming rules as the public had not had a recent say on marine farms through its plans, as expected.

More than half of the nations 1150 marine farms had to review their consents in the next five years or about 55 percent of the industry.

About 320 marine farm consents were due to expire in Marlborough before the end of 2024.

Marlburians first had their say on marine farms through the council’s resource management plans in the 1990s.

But the groups said the region’s aquaculture industry had developed “well beyond” what was contemplated then.

“Over that time, landscape values have changed and decision-makers have failed to properly grapple with growing cumulative effects and ecosystem impacts.”

Marine farms were dealing out “major ecological hits” to areas such as Clova Bay in Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere, the groups said. One of Clova Bay’s families had made an Instagram page to highlight the amount of farm pollution.

The groups were concerned the council’s new aquaculture chapter would adopt an “unfounded baseline” that all existing marine farming activities could be tolerated.

A council spokesman said the council planned to release its aquaculture chapter before the end of the year, after it finished consultation with central government and iwi.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further as the process has entered into its formal statutory phase,” the spokesman said.

Marlborough’s environment plan brought together three of the region’s major management plans into a single document and defined what activities were appropriate in the region’s urban, rural and coastal environments.

The aquaculture chapter was shelved while the rest of the plan went out for public feedback in 2016, as the council was “not satisfied” that it gave effect to Government laws.

Instead, the council decided to continue the review process and established the Marlborough Aquaculture Review Working Group – made up of marine farming, community and Government representatives – to help it.

After running a collaborative process, the recommendations of the group were reported to the planning, finance and community committee last June.

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.