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A local iwi is thinking big with 'transformational' sea farm plans in Opotiki

Pou whenua at Waiotahi Beach, near Opotiki , tell the story of Māori and Pakeha interaction in the area. Photo/Troy Baker

Opotiki tests the Government’s regional-development ambitions as the local iwi thinks big on seafood.

The small town of Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty is fishing for “a big chunk of money” from the Government to accelerate development of the country’s largest sea farm. It sees the project as a way to lift its people out of poverty and develop a new frontier for primary production.

The local iwi, Whakatōhea, has been planning and developing the sea farm, in open waters off Opotiki’s nutrient-rich coast, for almost two decades. It pulled in its first haul of commercial mussels two years ago and has big expansion plans but is hamstrung by infrastructure limitations at the local port.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Its trading company, Whakatōhea Mussels, operates one boat, which is based at nearby Whakatane because a sandbar at the Opotiki Harbour hinders movement to and from the port, which makes access unreliable. Tourism operators wanting to access local attractions such as White Island are also affected by this.

Whakatōhea has another boat being built, which it expects to have running for this year’s harvest, and sees the potential for a much larger fleet, but is constrained by conditions at Opotiki and restrictions at Whakatane, which is too cramped to accommodate a growing commercial operation.

“It’s holding up the speed of development,” says Opotiki Mayor John Forbes, who is a big fan of the sea farm. “This bar has been hamstringing this place for 150 years. Ever since there has been trade in and out of this port, the bar has been an issue.”

A concept of the groyne structure being proposed for Opotiki.

In the past, when there was just one scow a week, the need was less pressing, as it could anchor and wait a day for the tides, but with the potential for 20-30 boats working a large sea-farming industry that have to come and go all the time, it’s unworkable, he says.

The Opotiki District Council has committed $5 million to the harbour-entrance project, with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council contributing a further $20 million. The balance is being sought from the Government, although the sum remains confidential until the Cabinet has considered the proposal. But Forbes says the total cost is now “substantially more” than an earlier estimate of $55 million after the design was rejigged to take account of waves and earthquake proofing.

“It’s quite a big bite of money for the Government to say, ‘Yes, we are putting this big chunk of money into a place like Opotiki,’” he says.

Still, he sees it as an essential piece of transport infrastructure that will help develop jobs and exports and boost the economy, enabling the movement of goods and services, much like getting trucks from the forest to the port.

He notes the Government regularly spends hundreds of millions to improve the roading network; this is “just chump change” by comparison.

High welfare dependency

At stake is the future of an area that is blessed with natural beauty but lags behind the rest of the country in economic achievement.

Opotiki stands out as one of the country’s most-deprived areas as measured by the Index of Deprivation compiled by the University of Otago’s Department of Public Health. It has stubbornly remained in the worst-deprived category since analysis began more than 20 years ago.

Reports note it has high levels of welfare dependency, which leads to negative social and economic outcomes such as poor health and educational performance, inadequate housing, poverty, dysfunctional family relations and criminal offending. Gangs and drugs are prevalent.

Expansion of the sea farm is seen as a way to turn around the town’s fortunes after the severe damage wrought by the market-oriented economic policies, introduced by the Lange Government, in the 1980s and early 90s. During this period, the local hospital closed, as did a dairy factory, a clothing manufacturer, a boot factory and a bacon works. Between 400 and 800 jobs were lost.

Although the local economy has picked up in recent times, thanks to an upswing in the kiwifruit, manuka honey, tea-tree oil and forestry industries, Forbes says unemployment would be higher if a lot of people hadn’t left for Australia during the hard times last century.

Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board chairman Robert Edwards (left) and long-serving Opotiki Mayor John Forbes. Photo/Troy Baker

Whakatōhea has sea farm consent for 3800ha off Opotiki, with further applications under way. Forbes says pending Treaty settlements could see the project expand to 16,000ha in the next few years and even more in the future. The open-ocean facility has coped with storm conditions and is insured.

“We’re pioneers,” says Whakatōhea Māori Trust Board chairman Robert Edwards. “The more we learnt about it, the more positive we became. We’re 100% sure we can make a success of this. It’s a lifeline for our people here.”

In 2016, the operation harvested about 40 tonnes of mussels for the local market. The harvest increased to 400 tonnes last year, and the prediction for this year is 2000 tonnes.

Although the project is currently limited to mussels, the water is already consented for 10 species, and private companies are starting to sniff around for a piece of the action.

“The farming of the sea is a big new frontier for primary production,” Forbes says. “I am excited about it as a way of producing protein in a sustainable manner.”

An estimated 1047 jobs could be created directly from the expansion of the sea farm, including the development of local processing facilities. Associated industries around the country, including boat building, rope making and sea-anchor manufacture, would also get a boost.

“We know where this thing starts, we actually don’t know where it’s going to stop,” Forbes says. “There are not many investments like this that come along for a country to make. Already it’s the single biggest aquaculture operation in New Zealand, and it will be world scale when it’s finished.”

Benighted area

The proposal has the support of Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, a former chairman of the Maori Fisheries Commission and Sealord and a self-proclaimed fan of aquaculture and champion for provincial New Zealand.

“The provinces desperately need such developments,” Jones says. “As the regional minister, I am going to pull out all the stops to enable them to make it go ahead.

“Whichever way you cut it, socio-economically, this is a benighted area. The scale that they are pursuing would be transformational.”

Jones says the project has attracted cross-party support, with National’s East Coast MP, Anne Tolley, “very keen” and Labour colleagues “extremely enthusiastic” that it take place.

The previous National Government committed up to $3 million to investigate whether improving the harbour entrance and building a wharf were commercially viable, with the intention of putting in about $20 million.

Jones says funding could come from the $1-billion-a-year provincial growth fund set up as part of the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement. He is working on various options with officials and a decision is expected in the next couple of months.

“We need to bring the project to a point where we can all be confident that it is worth pursuing. At this stage, I do believe it is.”

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.