A boat ride through the Marlborough Sounds with mussel farmer John Young is a journey through an ancient seascape John knows like the back of his hand.
John Young is the head of Marlborough Sounds-based business Clearwater Mussels, which operates a mix of company-owned, and shareholder-owned farms throughout the Sounds and further afield in Tasman and Golden Bays.
Over the past 40 years, farming the area's deep waters has surpassed the viability of farming stock that graze the steep, de-nuded hillsides in the Sounds. John estimates there are only 100,000 stock units left in the Sounds, generating about about $1 million annual turnover compared with aquaculture's $300m.
John has lived and worked in the Sounds for more than four decades. He's seen mussel farming grow from nothing, to become a major export business.
His interest started when he was a youngster, watching a fisherman catch elephant fish before heading to Canterbury University where he completed a science degree.
"I never really wanted to work for anybody so I watched the fisherman at Sumner catching elephant fish. Then out of these very sounds I went fishing for rig - experience and absolutely no ability at all - but it led to a job working for the Department of Fisheries, which was part of MAF."
It was John and another biologist who introduced the long line system to mussel farming, which was being used in Japan for growing scallops and oysters. He says mussel farming has turned around the fortunes of Havelock, which was once a dowdy forestry town, and is now a thriving gateway township to the Marlborough Sounds.
John says mussels were a marginal enterprise and economy of scale was the only way to make the business work. He says it was an essential part of the Marlborough economy.
Aquaculture's value to the Marlborough region was confirmed in report last year by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER). It says aquaculture, made up of marine farming and the processing of its produce, generated close to 6 percent of Marlborough's $2.8 billion annual GDP, and employed almost 4 percent of the district's total labour force.
The report also notes Marlborough, as a pioneering aquaculture region in New Zealand, has the highest marine farming output of any region, mostly from mussels and salmon production.
John says the future of marine farming would be big, if it was allowed to be.
The NZIER report says there was uncertainty about the future cost and security of aquaculture because 56 percent of farms faced consent renewal by 2025. Licences issued for more than half of the Sounds 600 or so farms installed before the Resource Management Act was created, will expire over the next few years.
Few new consents have been issued in recent years. A moratorium was applied to new marine farming in the Sounds in 1996 and a national moratorium from 2002-04. From 2004-2011, there was no marine farming development in the Sounds amid uncertainties created by the introduction of new Aquaculture Management Areas. New legislation was passed in 2011.
The Marlborough District Council has recently set up a working party to draft the overarching strategy that will help guide the renewal of the hundreds of marine farm licences. It includes representatives of all groups with an interest in the Sounds: industry and environmental protection groups, residents, the tourism sector, local government and central government.
John used his science background and past political leanings as a "greenie" to back his argument that marine farming poses little threat to the environment, but he's up against a growing environmental awareness in the Sounds, not only from residents but from the Marlborough council. It has made it clear that its obligation is to everyone who has a stake in the Sounds, from iwi to residents, industry, tourism operators and the many environmental lobby groups who keep a close eye on this exceptional piece of New Zealand.