The Marine Farming Planning Review Panel recently handed down its decision on Tassal's Soldiers Point marine farming expansion proposal and, for the first time since this planning body came into existence, a marine farming development proposal has actually been turned down.
This somewhat surprising outcome is certainly a win for the conservation movement and the local community, but does it indicate a new approach to planning for the aquaculture industry here in Tasmania?
Just looking at the final report made by the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel (MFPRP) on this decision made a refreshing change from past experience. The report provided a summary of many of the concerns presented to the MFPRP and even outlined the reasons for the final decision. Although one might expect this sort of documentation to be provided for any serious planning process, this has generally not been the case for aquaculture planning here in Tasmania. Too often, decisions are inadequately justified or not justified at all.
So far so good, but while reading through the documentation one quickly becomes aware that all the problems associated with this planning process remain. It quickly becomes apparent that this decision was based on a unique set of circumstances that relate particularly to Soldiers Point. This process, although successful in this instance from the point of view of the conservation movement, actually highlights the shortcomings associated with the aquaculture planning system here in Tasmania.
A private company, Tassal, made the Soldiers Point expansion proposal. The company justified this expansion as a way to separate year classes of fish and reduce the risk of disease. However Tassal has other sites in the area and other ways to manage its production so as to separate year classes. A better explanation for this expansion proposal is that the company simply wanted to expand production. It is no secret that the Tasmanian aquaculture industry wants to expand production by something like 50% to 100%. This is bad news for anyone who values the waterways in which this industry operates and does not want them overrun by the marine farming industry.
The proposed expansion at Soldiers Point would not only prevent access by other users to even more of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, but would also increase nutrient pollution, noise pollution and visual pollution. Conservation groups and members of the local community raised these concerns in both written and spoken submissions during the planning process overseen by DPIPWE and the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel.
In the end, it was a previously unrecognised area of reef close to the proposed expansion that was the determining factor that stopped the proposal, due to concerns about effluent from the farm damaging marine life associated with this area of sea bed.
This reef has a community of sea whips, sponges, sea fans and other invertebrate animals attached to the rock. According to the MFPRP report expert witness, Associate Professor Stuart Frusher (from UTAS) pointed out that this kind of habitat was rare in the Channel, and that there would be an increased impact on the algae of the reef from increased nutrient loading.
Oddly enough, this reef had not even been identified in the preliminary environmental survey required by the Marine Farming Planning Act and current planning processes, but was apparently first brought to the attention of the proponent and DPIPWE by the Woodbridge Marine Discovery Centre, which considers this reef as an important teaching resource.
The MFPRP concluded that the presence of this previously unknown reef within 200m of the proposed expansion area represented a unique habitat within the channel and southern Tasmania, and as it was used for educational purposes by the Woodbridge Discovery Centre, represented a substantial impediment to the proposed expansion. It found that the high conservation and social value of the reef overrides potential economic benefit to be gained from the proposal.
While this decision was clearly the right one, it is important to note that the MFPRP acknowledged that the visual amenity boat movements and noise were all going to increase under the draft amendment, but were ‘... not considered to be of significant nature compared to present conditions with respect to the objectives of the Act’. Loss of access, noise, and visual pollution and other impacts of fish farming were not considered to be important enough to stop the expansion proposal from going ahead under the current legislation or planning arrangements. In other words, the sorts of things one would expect a planning body to give some weight to in an assessment of an industrial expansion were considered to have very little importance.
For many years the TCT has pointed out that recreational and environmental stakeholders are not adequately represented in the planning process and by panel members, and that non-industry positions have not been given the consideration they deserve. While new members and a new approach mean that there has been a definite improvement in the way the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel makes and justifies its decisions, this does not really solve the underlying problems associated with the planning process for the aquaculture industry in Tasmania. A planning process that depends on the individuals working in it for a successful outcome is completely unsatisfactory. A planning process that ignores legitimate, reasonable and widespread concerns of people within the community is simply not doing its job.
The current planning process associated with aquaculture development in Tasmania cannot be compared to the much more comprehensive and transparent process of the Tasmanian Planning Commission, or its predecessor the RPDC. As I pointed out in a previous article on aquaculture and Soldiers Point, it is interesting to note that many of the planning fiascos, such as the pulp mill, that have beleaguered the Tasmanian Government and community in recent times have occurred because the government has tried to short-circuit its own planning process. Along with the forestry and mining industries, the aquaculture industry here in Tasmania is quarantined from the normal planning process. It is time that this problem is corrected, so that the community can have real input into planning decisions involving the aquaculture industry. The industry should be mature enough by now to survive exposure to normal planning processes in the same way as practically every other Tasmanian business. It should be exposed to the scrutiny of Tasmania's normal planning process and the role of the Marine Farming Planning Review Panel should be undertaken by the Tasmanian Planning Commission.