A flotilla is gearing up in protest, environmental groups have voiced their concerns, but the overwhelming majority of submissions back a controversial salmon farm proposal.
The Ministry for Primary Industries is proposing to relocate six salmon farms owned by New Zealand King Salmon from low-flow to high-flow sites in the Marlborough Sounds.
After months of talk and consultation, the first day of public hearings overseen by an independent panel kicked off at the Marlborough Convention Centre on Monday.
Submissions on the proposal closed on March 27. A report commissioned by the ministry showed 408 of the 591 written submissions backed the relocation bid, a staggering 69 per cent.
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A further 16 supported the proposal in part, while 151 were opposed, or 25.5 per cent.
Seven opposed in part, one was neutral and eight submissions did not state a view on the proposal.
King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne said he was not surprised by the level of support, which lawyers specialising in resource management law described as unusually high.
“It’s a great idea predicated on the improvement of the environment, and it also brings economic and social benefits,” he said.
“So if you’re ticking all three boxes you’re doing a pretty good job – there’s less reason to object.
“I believe this to be the most popular aquaculture resource management application ever, and I would like to hear from anyone that has heard otherwise.”
The ministry predicted relocating the six farms could produce $49 million in gross domestic product, as well as 511 fulltime jobs over the course of 10 to 15 years as the farms were developed in stages.
Ministry aquaculture manager Dan Lees said at the hearing on Monday there would be a financial cost of not proceeding, and Marlborough needed to capitalise on opportunities to boost its economy.
If the relocation bid did not go ahead, King Salmon would still have to follow best practice guidelines at its farms, which would involve a fallowing, or leaving, period at the lower-flow sites.
“This would require initial fallowing of the four operative lower-flow farms for two to five years to allow the seabed to recover,” Lees said.
Production would also have to be resumed at lower stock levels. Lees said over the course of the fallowing period, it was estimated $10m in GDP and 105 employees could be lost.
However, Rosewarne downplayed job losses. King Salmon had agreed to introduce best practice guidelines to its lower-flow sites by 2024, so there was time for the company to explore new technologies, he said.
A ministry report into the submissions broke down how many times different themes came up. The most common, with 383 mentions, was ‘economic benefits’; this was followed by ‘best practice/scientific evidence’ which included the need for further research, and compliance with standards.
‘Social benefits’ was the next most common theme, with 168 mentions, followed by ‘environmental concerns’, which included serious loss of habitats, with 152 mentions.
The level of support was similar to the number of submissions supporting the King Salmon proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, Rosewarne said.
The company applied, under the Resource Management Act, for changes to be made to the Marlborough Sounds Resource Management Plan so they could secure resource consent for new farms.
Rosewarne said there were about 400 submissions in support of the 2011 proposal, and about 800 against.
“Those that claim that they’re in the majority that oppose us, they’re clearly not. Last time they raised 800 submissions and this time it’s only about 150,” he said.
Panel chairman Peter Skelton said in his introductory remarks on Monday the panel was charged with listening to submissions, going over the evidence and preparing a report of recommendations.
The final decision, whether changes to the Marlborough Sounds Resource Management Plan would be made to allow the sites to be relocated, was up to Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy, Skelton said.
“The panel is mindful of the fact that this change will not automatically authorise the relocation of any of the six existing salmon farms,” he said.
“The plan change will provide for a resource consent process that will enable the Marlborough District Council to consider in detail any proposal for relocation.”
Lees said each day of the hearings, which run until May 17, would be recorded. Transcripts of each submission would be released at the end of each week on the ministry’s website, he said.