EPA critical of controversial fish farm's impact on Port Stephens' marine park

THE state’s peak environmental watchdog raised concerns about the potential for a trial NSW government fish farm to damage Port Stephens’ marine park almost two years ago.

Pressure is mounting on Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair to relocate the joint NSW government and Tasmanian-based Huon Aquaculture research trial after 20,000 kingfish escaped a “fortress pen” into the habitat protection zone in rough seas earlier this month. Huon has blamed the failure on barnacle build-up on the sea cage nets.

There are fears the voracious eaters will impact the marine park's wild fish population. Vocal critics have long-held the view that the farm should not have been approved in the main thoroughfare of migrating humpback whales.

In 2016, the NSW Environment Protection Authority and the Office of Environment and Heritage raised concerns about the project, which is 18 months into a five-year research trial.

The government departments were among 13 agencies, community groups and tourism operators that lodged written submissions to the Department of Planning and Environment that was assessing the validity of the project that took over the lease from another large-scale fish farm operation in the same area. It folded in 2004 after storms damaged its pens and thousands of snapper escaped.

In a letter accompanying its submission, the EPA described the aquaculture project as “experimental” and questioned its impact on the marine park. “The EPA considers the modification proposal does not entirely establish that there will not be significant environmental impact,” it stated.

Commercial fishers said if the sea cages could not withstand the storm that resulted in the kingfish escape on January 19, they should be moved. “It was a decent east coast low, but far from the worst we’ve seen and there will be plenty more before the year is out,” one said.

Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said while she supported the fish farm, it was definitely in the wrong location.

A spokeswoman for Mr Blair said the location for the trial was “carefully chosen” based on a range of criteria.

“However this is the first time yellowtail kingfish have been cultured in sea cages off the east coast of NSW,” she said.

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