Friday, April 21, 2006

Chris Hegan: Aquaculture a welcome sight

Twenty-six years ago some friends and I bought a farm at Port Charles at the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. One of the great sights on the drive there was the island-dotted reaches of the Coromandel Harbour spread below us when we reached the peninsula ridge from the western side. Once at Port Charles we looked across untouched waters to Great Barrier Island.

Now on my drive I see part of the Coromandel Harbour dotted with row after row of mussel buoys, and the same sight occupies one corner of our Port Charles view to the Barrier.

Can you imagine what that does to me? Let me surprise you - absolutely nothing. If anything, I see a couple of paddocks impinging on the vast stretches of water and find it encouraging and interesting.

The fishing has improved. We have become world leaders in a new industry.

Although there are differing points of view on the overall ecological effects, common sense suggests the net effect is an increase in biomass and food source. Nutrition doesn't go wasted in the sea.

On the other hand it distresses me that the refusal of a mussel farming permit in the Kaipara is credited to the need to preserve walkers' appreciation of the view, while conceding that "as yet, there are few walkers but they will increase one day". Yeah, right.

I know that the baby boomer bubble is in its prime nature-walking period -old enough to be interested and not too old for the effort.

Judging by the interests of my children, I predict a decline in those numbers.

The views being protected are always described as "outstanding". The New Zealand coast is almost uniformly lovely. Only a few places, by definition, can accurately be described as outstanding.

From what I have seen of the Kaipara, pretty as it is, there are no outstanding views.

A mussel farm wrapped around Lion Rock at Piha? Never.

But in a lovely, but average, stretch of coastal waters, why on earth not?

The only objection I could raise is to its size - 30ha is a lot of space.

I consider myself a conservationist. I rejoiced at the Maruia Declaration. I lent what support I could to prevent mining at Coromandel and will do so again if necessary because there are compelling environmental arguments against that activity.

But what I most want to conserve is a prosperous future for my children. I don't want them to bail out of the world's first "de-developed" nation.

I understand ideas are afoot to try mussel farming in deeper waters several kilometres offshore. I don't believe it will fly.

Why put up with greater fuel costs, greater anchoring challenges, fewer harvesting days because of bad weather and slower growth from less nutrition when you can simply set up quickly and easily in Australia, with a bigger, more prosperous domestic industry and be closer to the world markets?

I doubt that many would-be or actual mussel farmers are that patriotic.

If the attitude to aquaculture apparent in our bureaucracy and judiciary today had been around 150 years ago, we would not have a farming economy. We wouldn't have an economy at all.

We have grown to see rolling farmlands cleared of bush hosting sleek, well-cared-for stock as attractive. It's all in the mind. Poverty is not.

It's time to start looking at aquaculture with new eyes.

* Chris Hegan lives in Grey Lynn and has no commercial interest in aquaculture, although he wishes he had.

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