A meeting about aquaculture options for the Far North has set alarm bells ringing for conservation activist Dean Baigent-Mercer.
The Kaeo resident fears pristine coastal areas, such as Paradise Bay and Stephensons Island – out from Whangaroa Harbour – are being secretly targeted as locations for massive fish farms.
He accuses the ministry and the Northland Regional Council of conducting talks behind closed doors.
"Why are deals being done that will effectively privatise the sea for large fishing companies?" he asks.
Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry director-general Wayne McNee says meetings have taken place between various government departments and regional authorities to determine appropriate areas where there are opportunities for future growth of the aquaculture sector.
The unit is the government's key adviser on aquaculture.
"The recent meeting with the Northland Regional Council that Mr Baigent-Mercer refers to was designed to understand what ecological, environmental and social information it holds to help us identify opportunities in Northland to develop the aquaculture sector", he says.
Mr Baigent-Mercer says commercial fishing interests have unfairly dominated the coast and deep sea in the past.
"I believe coastal communities should not have more corporate fishing desires forced on them.
"The fishing industry has already taken most of the fish and destroyed vast areas of productive marine ecosystems by bottom trawling."
Mr Baigent-Mercer calls for long-term planning.
"Aquaculture needs to fit within the big picture – not be made the priority that bulldozes over all other interests. You don't need fish farms if you manage the ocean sustainably – that means ending commercial overfishing by lowering the overall catch rate."
But Mr McNee says aquaculture growth – within appropriate areas and within sound ecological limits – has the potential to deliver significant economic growth and employment opportunities for both Northland and New Zealand.
"Regional income in Northland from aquaculture is estimated to be about $30 million a year and this could grow to over $200 million by 2025."
Mr McNee says the development of aquaculture is governed by the regional planning framework and by the requirements of the Resource Management Act.
Under the act, development of new aquaculture space requires consideration of impacts of the proposed activities.
Interested parties, such as recreational fishers, boaties and commercial fishers, have an opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process.
"I encourage the public to actively engage in any future resource consent applications relating to aquaculture in order to ensure that any development best serves both the region and New Zealand as a whole", Mr McNee says.
Yachting New Zealand has taken a stand on marine farming, saying it is concerned that the perceived benefits of aquaculture have been overstated at the expense of the scenic and environmental values of the coastline, which in turn support recreational use, tourism and have associated economic benefits.
The association says that, with so much money to be made, it is important to make sure that the benefits for a very few developers do not outweigh the costs for very many ordinary New Zealand boaties.
zDean Baigent-Mercer has campaigned actively for Greenpeace and on environmental issues such as bottom-trawling, protection of native forests and against the threat of deep sea drilling for oil off the coastline.