THE failure of a fish farm “fortress pen” that saw 20,000 kingfish escape into the Port Stephens’ marine park has led to calls for an independent review of the controversial project.
Concern has been raised about self-regulation of the trial research project that is a joint venture between the NSW government and Tasmanian-based Huon Aquaculture.
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said it was not appropriate for the fish-farm operators to police themselves.
“There should be independent oversight of the whole trial and an independent investigation into the recent failure,” Ms Washington said. “With the Department of Primary Industries and Huon both heavily invested in this project, it’s hard to know where the truth lies.”
In its first year, the project employed ten full-time Department of Primary Industries’ staff and eight full-time and two part-time Huon Aquaculture staff.
The Newcastle Herald reported on Thursday that the future of the project, which is 18 months into a five-year research trial, is under a cloud following the loss of one-third of its yellowtail kingfish stock with a retail value of more than $2 million.
There are fears thousands of “ravenous” kingfish, that escaped the farm seven kilometres off Hawks Nest on January 19 when a sea cage was damaged in rough seas, will devastate the marine park's wild fish population.
Up to 17,000 predatory yellowtail kingfish, used to being fed automatically, are now hunting in the park, with commercial and recreational fishers cashing in.
According to the project’s annual environmental management report, external skin and gill flukes were detected on the kingfish in March, April, May, July and August. The worm-like parasites, commonly found on wild fish, were treated with hydrogen peroxide mixed in the pens.
Marine Parks’ Association chairman and whale watching tour operator Frank Future said he wasn’t against the fish farm, just its location.
“Regulators have said we can’t put a dive site in the habitat protection zone, but they can put a fish farm in,” he said. “Here we have a government agency in bed with private enterprise, so the question has to be asked who is going to sit in judgement on them.”
Huon is conducting an investigation into the recent failure and the findings will be reported to the Department of Planning and Environment. A DPI spokesman said a “summary of the findings” would be made available to the public. He said environmental monitoring of the project was being independently undertaken by the University of Newcastle.
The trail still has two pens stocked with 40,000 kingfish due for harvest this month.
A ban on fishing in the area is in place to November 7.