Salmon are mysteriously dying at a premier salmon farm as its owners, majority controlled by a Malaysian tropical rain forest logger and palm oil operator, call for free access to Marlborough Sounds to increase production by over 160%.
New Zealand King Salmon (NZKS) say they've declared "code red" at Waihinau farm in the sounds after "higher-than-normal mortality rate".
Tonnes of dead fish have been dumped in sealed containers at a landfill.
A Government ordered board of inquiry is reviewing NZKS's plan to lift salmon production from 8500 tonnes a year worth $115 million from five farms to 30,000 tonnes from 14 farms.
Using the sounds rent free, they aim to earn $1 billion worth of exports by 2025.
Industry sources involved with Waihinau told the Sunday Star-Times that NZKS hired a tug to tow the entire farm out into Pelorus Sound to wash it in a bid to stop the die off.
"We held it out there for weeks," a source said, "and kept at it until the fish stopped dying."
They struggled to get it into position because of a large pile of salmon faeces and fish pellets.
NZKS CEO Grant Rosewarne said towing of farms was normal and environmental best-practice in salmon farming.
He said testing by the Ministry of Primary Industries shows the Waihinau salmon is pathogen-free.
"The King salmon species combined with New Zealand's remote location and strict bio-security measures means the country has never been affected by major disease outbreaks and that record remains intact," he says.
NZKS had voluntarily put declared ''code red'' pending more tests.
They think the dying is linked to an "unfortunate combination of events such as towing to a new site or high summer temperatures or seal aggression or a combination of all three".
Rosewarne says burying dead fish was "common practice" but after local media questioned use of a landfill, they switched to rendering as "no micro-organism can survive rendering, which is conducted at temperatures that guarantee sterility".
Lobby group Guardians of the Sound say that NZKS should not be allowed to expand while the deaths remain a mystery.
"If this disease can manifest in the wild fish population, this will be a disaster."
Most submitters to the inquiry oppose NZKS citing pollution and disease and other fear the way the farms are luring sharks deep into the sound.
Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson says the sounds are of national significance and she was concerned at the "cumulative effects, of the discharge of contaminants, principally fish feed and fish excretions, on water quality in the area".
NZKS will discharge up to 42,000 tonnes of fish feed into the sounds every year and this could "significantly adversely affect ecological and other values".
Blenheim based consultants Aura Sustainability Ltd says the planned nutrient load would have an "extremely significant environmental impact".
The farms will hit Marlborough's tourist image.
"This is a massive threat, as the first person to get attacked by a shark or sick from swimming too close to the farms is going to tarnish not only the reputation of King Salmon but also the entire New Zealand aquaculture sector and the brand image of Marlborough overseas."
Another submitter says NZKS's target of 30,000 tonnes of salmon would release nitrogen waste equivalent to sewage from half a million people.
The 14 farms would use 5000 litres of anti-foul chemicals per farm a year, along with incesticides and heavy metals such as copper and zinc.
A think-tank, the McGuinness Institute, notes that NZKS will not pay rent with the Government believing its operations will create an economic flow on instead: "NZ King Salmon is predominantly owned by a Malaysian company, so there is no guarantee positive economic benefits....''
NZKS is 51% owned Evergreen Holdings, in turn owned by Malaysian company Tiong Group headed by Tiong Hiew King. He owns Rimbunan Hijau Group, one of the world's largest tropical loggers and oil palm plantation owners.
Forest and Bird Protection Society says if a Malaysian dairy company was permitted to put 1000 cows on conservation land and not pay any rent while cutting off public access "there would be a huge public expectation of a lease in compensation."
'Piggeries of the sea'
Tasman and Sounds Recreational Fishers' Association says its worse than that around Shanghai Penxin and the Crafer farms. At least the Chinese bought land; NZKS wants to take over public waters, pay nothing for it and take the profit off-shore.
"Salmon farms are the piggeries of the sea and can be likened to battery hen operations only far worse as they are in the world and are a considerable threat to our wild fisheries," the group says.
Opponents claim NZKS will need an additional 40,000 tonnes of fish feed per year involving plundering wild fish elsewhere in the world. NZKS claims they are substantially reducing the amount of fishmeal they are feeding to salmon - but that lowers omega 3 levels in salmon.
Outward Bound Trust, who are based in Queen Charlotte Sound, oppose NZKS saying they are bringing an "obvious industrial aspect" to a remote area.