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Fish Farms, is this the right industry for Port Stephens waters? Aquaculture Threatens Tourism

On Wednesday 22nd a significant turn out of Port Stephens residents attended a Public Information forum called by the Marine Parks Association to discuss the proposed plans to locate a large King fish farm in waters offshore from Port Stephen between Cabbage Tree and Broughton Islands. The project will be jointly managed by NSW DPI Fisheries and Tasmanian salmon farmer Huon Aquaculture. If the initial trials with 2 large research fish pens are successful it is planned to deploy 24 large fish cages known as Fortress pens into the area. These are 52 metres in diameter and will extend over two lease areas covering 1.5 square kilometres of public waters off the Port Stephens coast. This has serious implications for the local tourism industry.

Iain Watt president of the MPA chaired the meeting and outlined some of the issues raised by this controversial project. Ian Lyall, DPI Fisheries’ Aquaculture Manager fielded questions from the floor including concerned residents, members of the public and marine tourism operators including whale and dolphin watch operators, dive groups, members of the Hunter Birds Association and the Ocean and Coastal Care Initiative.

The waters under question represent the primary operational area for the local marine tourism industry, the main industry in the area. This particular area of water is a local biodiversity hotspot supporting a dolphin population, a recently returned breeding seal colony and is central to what is described as the whale highway, with an estimated 20,000 whales transiting through the area. This area has supported a strong and growing tourism industry for the past 20 years and any negative environmental impacts by the aquaculture industry will potentially have severe repercussions on the local tourism industry, associated businesses and other commercial and recreational activities that rely on this area ultimately affecting jobs and growth.

The potential impacts on this area include the possibility of deteriorating water quality in areas adjacent to the pens, effecting fish, sharks and the dive industry, noise pollution effecting cetaceans, seals and other marine fauna and their visitors (tourists), visual pollution effecting visitors to this once pristine area and other industrial scale activities and associated impacts on all visitors, commercial and recreational.

This is not a crusade against aquaculture, in fact the Marine Parks Association in general supports the sustainable development of aquaculture as a means for preserving global fish stocks and providing future food security and understands the need for research and development to achieve these aims. The point of contention does not lie with aquaculture but with the site selection and due process in approving the site.

The selected site for this project is considered to be inappropriate given the importance of this area to the existing tourism industry. Concerns are compounded by the recent catastrophic events in the waters of Macquarie harbour in Tasmania. A result directly attributed to the faecal fallout from overstocking and over feeding of fish in aquaculture farms including those owned by Huon, the proponent for this project.

Given these concerns, it is proposed that an alternative site be identified for this development, for example Stockton Bight has been suggested as a reasonable option, especially as the main service area for this intensive industry will be the port of Newcastle rather than Port Stephens.

However it is clear that the proponents of this project do not want to consider an alternative site and are clearly attached to the current plan which hopes to go ahead based on a modification to an old lease recently purchased by Huon. This lease was originally issued to Pisces Aquaculture Holdings in July 2001 after an Environmental Impact Assessment received government approval based on a trial carried out in 1999. This approval allowed Pisces Ltd to operate a 30 hectare Snapper farm in 20 metres of water close to Hawks nest beach. This failed for a variety of reasons and the sea cages finally broke apart in 2004. Mr Daniel Hogan, of Keringal Venture Kapital PL then bought the lease in 2006 to farm Akoia pearls, but this venture also failed.

Subsequently Huon Aquaculture purchased the lease for an undisclosed amount. However once purchased, the site was found to be unsuitable for the Huon/DPI plans which require an operational water depths of 40 m. The proponents subsequently applied for a modified lease, which would not require an additional EIA and submitted to the NSW Department of Planning for approval. However the new (modified) lease site is a further 6 kms offshore in 40 m of water as opposed to 20 m and adjacent to other sensitive habitats, but is to be approved based on the original Environmental Impact Statement from 2001 for the smaller shallower water Pisces lease site.

The proponents must have known that the original site was unsuitable for their purposes when they purchased the lease. The Huon project is substantially different to the original Pisces project with the approved EIA. The Huon project requires 40 m of water depth, not 20 as found at the original Pisces site, the Huon Fortress cages and proposed area of operation are considerably larger than the Pisces operation and the fish stocks are different with different feeds and stocking densities. The proposed overall size of this operation can be expected to have equivalent impacts, despite technical developments and improvements within in the industry. It is a completely different operation and the lease amendment process should be reviewed.

Many concerns were expressed at the forum about the modified lease site, particularly given its significance to tourism and many expressed the view that the proponent should be required to undertake a new EIA given the ecological and socio economic importance of the area and the substantial difference in the original project and proposed project.

The new venture lies on the direct route between the Heads and Broughton Island. It is an area heavily used by tourism operators, whale and dolphin watch operations and dive operators and hosts populations of dolphins, seals, turtles, seabirds and more than 20,000 Humpback whales travel through the area every year on their annual migration. The pristine natural beauty of these waters with their unique archipelago of volcanic islands and massive biodiversity has an intrinsic value for the local population, tourism and for future generations.

A film clip was shown from the October 2015 Landline story on the catastrophic problems with Macquarie harbour as a result of Aquaculture farmers over stocking including the proponent for this project Huon Aquaculture. A clip from ex-senator Bob Brown who lives in that region was also shown and highlighted the significant unresolved issues surrounding both inshore and offshore aquaculture and the irreversible complications and impacts that follow the arrival of aquaculture into an area. This industry needs to grow but can result in massive degradation of the marine environment from increased levels of nutrients and waste from thousands of tonnes of fish and may if left unchecked result in deep conflicts developing between the tourism industry and the aquaculture industry.

Attempts to drive this industry into these pristine nationally significant waterways should have greater consideration for the precautionary principle over economic expediency and legal loop holes, especially if developing a sustainable aquaculture industry. A first step in this direction would be to carry out a new Environmental Impact Assessment on this development and to identify alternative sites that will not impact on a local biodiversity hotspot and critical tourism operation area.

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