Environment News: The case for marine fish farms

IN September last year we wrote about reported plans by NSW DPI to establish an experimental fish farm off Hawks Nest on the NSW mid-north coast. Details were a bit sketchy but were confirmed in late October when it was officially announced that a firm proposal had been developed and put on exhibition. It is for a 20 hectare lease (370 metres x 530 metres) located 3.5 kilometres off Hawks Nest for a proposed five years. Consultation on the proposal involved local government, environmental and community groups, indigenous leaders, recreational and commercial fishers, marine tour operators and local associations.

The research planned for the site aims at proving species suitability, validating equipment and technology and conducting environmental monitoring.

Seacage farming in NSW has had a chequered history, primarily due to four factors. Firstly, there aren’t many suitable, safe sites to establish the farms. NSW is defined as a “high impact coast”, which in normal terms means that exposed areas regularly get pounded by big, destructive seas, as any surfer or rock angler could attest to. Secondly, the few suitable estuaries are already heavily used by residents, tourists, anglers, boaters, tour operators, ferries etc. Those groups can and have blocked aquaculture developments in the past through their local politicians. Thirdly, NSW has high environmental standards around seacage waste (good) and the cost of conforming to those standards can be very high in the establishment phase, where lots of money is going out and nothing is coming in (not so good). Fourthly, NSW governments and lending institutions have traditionally had short arms and long pockets when it comes to supporting these sorts of start-up businesses financially.

So why bother? Because, basically, it’s the way of the future. NSW already imports 85 per cent of its seafood, but traditional species such as yellowtail kingfish and mulloway are still much sought after by non-angling fish consumers. Some of the best of these fish (Hiramasa kingfish and Suzuki mulloway, both brand names) have been farmed in South Australia and have been featured on top seafood restaurant menus. For a while commercial operators and their agents ran campaigns against seacage raised fish, but I’ve been part of blind testings of farmed and wild product, and the seacage quality is great.

Queensland researchers have been doing lots of work on more “exotic” species such as gold spot (estuary) cod, mangrove jacks, barramundi cod, cobia and coral trout. The sandgropers have tried mahi mahi. Whiting seem to be being researched and trialled in most states, with what success I’m not sure.

NSW should be in the game. We’ve got top aquaculture researchers and scientists. If we can refine techniques, agree on site criteria and select the right species to grow in NSW, consumers will get access to well-priced, high quality local product. Then hopefully economic market realities will mean that many of our favourite recreational target species will be not targeted in bulk by commercial operators, as they currently are.

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