Aquaculture reform urgently needed

A recent amendment to the Marine Farming Planning Act 1995 puts more direct power in the hands of the minister. This change makes it even more obvious that the government believes Tasmanians should have no meaningful role in the planning process that governs Tasmania’s aquaculture industry.

Along with the local forestry and mining industries, Tasmania’s aquaculture industry is quarantined from the normal planning processes that apply to other businesses and ordinary Tasmanians. If you want to start up a normal business or build a house, you are subject to Tasmania's mainstream Planning and Approvals System, and conflicting views are resolved by the Tasmanian Planning Commission.

The commission replaced the RPDC (Resource Planning and Development Commission) as the independent body charged with assessing planning proposals. However, many of the operations of the commission are based on those of the RPDC, and as a result there is a requirement, and expectation, that decision-making processes are transparent and based on evidence, and that adequate documentation is available for public scrutiny.

While not a professional planner myself, I am informed by those who are that this system has worked well and provides a mechanism whereby disparate views and values can be evaluated. It seems that, while those involved do not always get what they want, whether for or against development, there is a general consensus that at least all the relevant information has been taken into account, that all involved have had a real input into the process and that the decisions are based on a rational and transparent process.

In contrast, to assess aquaculture planning proposals Tasmania has the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel. This is supposed to be an expertise-based committee that can represent the interests of disparate members of our community. Instead, it has repeatedly failed to take into account genuine concerns about visual and noise pollution, water pollution resulting from the release of nutrients, antibiotics and antifoulants into the water, and environmental impacts. This panel has repeatedly dismissed the views of local residents and communities as well as recreational users such as fishers and sailors. Many within the community have raised concerns about this with the government. I have been a member of two peak recreational fishing groups that have pointed out the lack of meaningful representation and requested representation on the panel, but were knocked back. The TCT has raised these issues many times, and made submissions during both reviews of the legislation, again with no effect.

Public consultation is required by the Act, but unfortunately this has little practical meaning. A legal opinion obtained by the TCT says that this required consultation merely gives the impression that the public will be involved. There is no guarantee that views other that those of the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel and the Marine Farming Branch of Marine Resources will be taken into account.

One example illustrates this problem. The Marine Farming Planning Review Panel approved a marine farming zone near the Nine Pin Point Marine Nature Reserve, despite opposition from the government’s own Department of Tourism, the Parks and Wildlife Service and the Coastal Unit of the Department of Environment and Land Management. In the end the proposed area was never developed because it was considered uneconomic and unsuitable. It has to be said that, if panel can reject the views of three significant government bodies in favour of those of the Marine Farming Branch on the development of an area which turned out to be of no use to the aquaculture industry, one has to wonder what chance there is of mere members of the community having their views taken into account.

As an aside, during the early days of the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel's existence it was once the norm for government agencies to participate in the consultation process required for aquaculture planning. However, since the unseemly dissent occurred, we understand that public displays of disunity between government departments over aquaculture are no longer permitted in Tasmania and public participation in aquaculture planning by government agencies is severely discouraged.

The Marine Farming Planning Review Panel has only turned down a marine farming proposal once during the whole time it has been operating. That was the Soldiers Point decision that occurred earlier this year.

As reported in this newsletter, a special set of circumstances explained that decision. And as stated in a previous article, while new members and a new approach meant that there was a definite improvement in the way the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel made and justified its decision, this did not really solve the underlying problems associated with the planning process for the aquaculture industry in Tasmania. And it is worth remembering that many significant concerns were simply dismissed out of hand.

Despite the existing shortcomings of the Marine Farming Planning Act 1995, Minister Bryan Green introduced an amendment to this legislation that made it even worse. In brief, it basically streamlines the planning process and removes the involvement of the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel if it fails to accept a proposal. Prior to the amendment, the minister always had great power.

The new amendment means that the minister of the day has the final say on whether an aquaculture development gets approved or not. The longstanding concerns about public participation in aquaculture planning have been ignored in the interests of concentrating power.

A cynic might suggest that the amendment was introduced in response to the failure of the Soldiers Point proposal to get up, and concerns that the industry proposal for a huge expansion of the aquaculture industry in Macquarie Harbour might be at risk.

Taking a broader view, I have to say that I believe that it is a mistake to try short-circuit a planning system so as to further exclude real public participation. One would have hoped that the ongoing Gunns pulp mill fiasco and many other very public battles associated with Tasmanian planning issues would have taught us that lesson by now.

Realistically, the amendment will make little difference as the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel has an almost perfect history of rubber-stamping any old proposal that comes from Tasmania's aquaculture industry. But the amendment is taking aquaculture planning in the wrong direction and is still very disappointing.

The TCT's position on Tasmania's aquaculture planning system is that it should be brought into the mainstream planning process and that legislation should be changed so that the panel’s role is carried out by the Tasmanian Planning Commission.

Rather than attempt to fix the existing problems associated with aquaculture planning in Tasmania, Bryan Green’s amendment takes an already broken planning system, tramples it underfoot and then sets it on fire.

It seems to me that the ‘winners’ are the people in the aquaculture industry who think that the minister is going to do them favours and pass any planning proposal they come up with. But that could never happen in Tasmania ...

Jon Bryan

Tasmanian Conservation Trust