"It is with a heavy heart the Panel declines the required resource consents for the Hananui Aquaculture Project." With these expressive words, an independent panel of experts rejected the application submitted by Ngāi Tahu Seafood Ltd. to install an offshore salmon farm in the Te Ara a Kiwa (Foveaux Strait), adjacent to Rakiura National Park. Despite recognizing its obvious benefits, the Panel considered that the adverse effects that the project could have on the environment outweighed its decision.
In May 2021, Ngāi Tahu Seafood Ltd. – which manages the Ngāi Tahu tribal fisheries assets – filed a resource consent application with Environment Southland to use the water space off the north coast of Rakiura to develop a sustainable offshore salmon farming operation. In it, the company highlighted how the sea surrounding Te Waipounamu (the South Island) and Rakiura (Stewart Island) has for centuries provided them with an abundant food supply that has served them for both sustenance and trade.
The proposal, in line with the New Zealand Government's Aquaculture Strategy to develop aquaculture through a sustainable growth path in offshore areas, proposed to now use "the best available international technology to take salmon farming away from its traditional location in sheltered harbours and bays and into more open waters." With this project, the tribe – which since ancestral times has had an intimate knowledge of, connection to, and respect for the sea – wanted to continue to harness these resources without losing sight of its maxim to care for, protect and nurture the environment so that it can thrive over generations.
The Hananui Aquaculture Project proposed to house salmon in floating polar circle pens off the north coast of Rakiura, where, they said, "the latest technology and environmental conditions (ideal water quality, temperature, waves and sea currents) would minimise environmental impact and ensure production of a sustainable product." However, the panel of experts has considered that there are not enough guarantees.
"The Panel has been conscious all along how important the Project is for the Applicant [Ngāi Tahu Seafood Ltd.] and mindful that Ngāi Tahu has an ancestral and enduring relationship with Rakiura and Te Ara a Kiwa and saw this Proposal as an opportunity to develop a contemporary mahinga kai ['to work the food']," they said in explaining their decision.
The Panel also claimed they agreed the proposal would have enormous benefits for both the Ngai Tahu community, the Rakiura community, and the wider Southland community. They also acknowledged that the holistic approach used by the company to reach the conclusion that the cultural, economic, and social benefits of the proposal would outweigh the environmental costs made sense.
"However, the large scale and dispersed salmon farms will result in a major step change to a receiving environment that is relatively unmodified by human activities, with very high natural character from a notable absence of any permanent marine structures and a relatively low level of human activity, except transiting and anchoring vessels," they also said. "The marine area is important for a number of threatened and at risk indigenous fauna, including sensitive benthic communities, marine mammals and sea birds, where adverse effects must be avoided."
The experts recalled that the Hananui Aquaculture Project would be adjacent to Rakiura National Park, and agreed that, at a minimum, part of the area adjacent to the proposal is an Area of Outstanding Natural Landscape (up to 2 km) and an Area of Outstanding Natural Character. They considered that the proposal "will have adverse effects which are more than minor, is overall contrary to the objectives and policies of the Southland Regional Coastal Plan and is inconsistent with Policies 11, 13 and 15 of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement." Therefore, they concluded that the overall activity is non-compliant.
"Although the proposal could urgently promote employment to support New Zealand's recovery from the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 and support the certainty of ongoing investment across New Zealand, the environmental effects are such that in the absence of a clear policy framework enabling for a development of this type and scale in this location, the Panel is guided by the provisions of both the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement and Southland Regional Coastal Plan," explained the experts. "The Proposal will not promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources and thus will not achieve the purpose of the Fast-track Consenting Act 2020, so the Panel declines the application," they concluded.
Just a month ago, the Beyond 2025 Southland Regional Long Range Plan identified aquaculture – along with tourism – as the two regional business opportunities that stood out above the rest in terms of scale and potential. "We've got an aspirational goal to unlock the potential of Murihiku Southland aquaculture to be a $1 billion industry," the plan stated. Offshore farming, especially testing and understanding new open ocean aquaculture technology, was one of the pillars of these aspirations. As such, this decline could be a setback not only for Ngāi Tahu Seafood Ltd. but for the entire aquaculture industry and the economic future of the region.