Consents granted for 94-hectare Far North marine farm

Two independent commissioners have granted permission for a 94 hectare marine farm off Stephenson Island in the Far North, citing the significant economic benefits it will bring to an "impoverished" part of the country.

Applicant Westpac Mussels Distributors Limited had asked the Northland Regional Council for various resource consents for a proposed 125ha farm off the island in Whangaroa Bay, designed mainly to farm mussels and gather and collect mussel spat. It also proposed using the area for "occasional depuration and growing of oysters" and raising other shellfish like scallops and paua.

The applications were publicly notified in mid-October 2011 (subs: correct 2011), attracting 278 submissions; 14 in support, two neutral and 261 opposed. (Prior to the hearing - held in Kerikeri in December last year - one submitter withdrew their submission and one changed their position from opposition to neutral.)

In a just-released decision, the two commissioners said there were some minor, or possibly more than minor, adverse effects requiring mitigation and that could only be achieved by modifying Westpac Mussel’s proposal.

These included effects on the outstanding natural character of nearby Cone Island, on the natural character of the margin of Stephenson Island, on small boat anchoring and recreational and Maori customary fishing.

The commissioners granted Westpac Mussels the consents needed for the proposed farm, but for a reduced 94.05ha area, roughly 30ha smaller than had been sought. The changes are designed to mitigate the effects outlined above and will ensure the farm is at least 200 metres from the edge of Stephenson Island.

Commissioners’ chairman - Napier-based Rob van Voorthuysen - acknowledged that even in its modified form, there would be some residual adverse effects.

In particular, these included on landscape values, "the seabed benthic environment under and adjacent to the farm", the displacement of dolphins frequenting the area, fishing and small boat anchoring.

"However, we find that the nature and scale of those residual adverse effects are, in our opinion, reasonably minor and not of sufficient scale to outweigh the significant positive social and economic benefits of the proposal."

The commissioners’ overall decision was that the proposal be allowed to proceed "primarily due to the significant economic benefits that it will bring to an impoverished part of New Zealand".

Evidence presented to the commissioners by economist Fraser Colegrave showed the farm - once fully operational - was expected to provide fulltime employment for 87 people within the region, with another 21 people elsewhere and boost regional GDP by $5.5 million.

Mr van Voorthuysen said also of particular relevance to the commissioners was the support from the Ririwha Ahu Whenua Trust, which represents the Maori owners of Stephenson Island.

The commissioners noted that any marine farm would probably result in residual adverse effects, irrespective of its location.

"(However) In that regard we consider the proposed location of this marine farm, being in the lee of a highly modified offshore island whose owners strongly support the proposal, is likely to be preferable to alternative locations that are either closer to the mainland or have more unmodified natural backdrops."

The consents will last for 35 years. However, the fully developed farm will also require a bond of $132,000 to help enable the clean-up and restoration of the site "should the operation cease at some stage in the future".

"The applicant intends making a significant investment in the proposed marine farm (which deserves a reasonable security of tenure) and in our view there are no potential adverse effects that would warrant the early cessation of the activity."

Mr van Voorthuysen said potential adverse effects were "predictable" and had been accounted for in the commissioners’ evaluation of the proposal, but any unforseen adverse effects could be dealt with by way of subsequent reviews provided for in the consent conditions.

The commissioners’ decision can now be appealed to the Environment Court for 15 working days.

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