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"Turning into a farce" is how Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association executive officer Kate Hesson describes the consultation process for a proposed huge marine protection area off the South Island’s east coast.
Last month, Ms Hesson called for it to be postponed following the market chaos caused by the effects of Covid-19 and her belief there was not enough time to have an informed process.
The Department of Conservation and Fisheries New Zealand were seeking public feedback on a proposed network of marine protected areas off the southeast coast of Otago. The submission process was advertised on February 17 and submissions close on April 17.
She wrote to Doc director-general Lou Sanson on February 18 to express her concerns and ask for a postponement, but she had not heard back. That was despite Doc planning director Natasha Hayward telling the Otago Daily Times late last month that Doc acknowledged the concerns raised by the association and would be providing a response to it.
Ms Hesson also submitted an Official Information Act request for information about how Doc arrived at its proposal, saying that was critical if submissions were to be made that could "make a difference".
"But Doc is now stonewalling by saying they might refuse the request or make us pay for it," she said.
She was critical of Doc for not organising public meetings to answer questions about the proposal which was a "massive change" that could affect recreational and commercial fishers for generations to come.
"It’s almost as if they don’t want anyone to know about it. They are also pre-determining what our submissions might be by prescribing questions in an online form."
The consultation period covered Easter, Otago and Southland Anniversary days, and school holidays. Given Cabinet considered the issue in May last year, she questioned "why it’s got urgent all of a sudden".
"My concern is that some people might think that this whole issue is a done deal politically and that there is no point in pointing out any problems. I think we need to make sure we get it right, rather than just get it fast," she said.
Doc acting planning director Karl Beckert said the department acknowledged the wide-ranging impacts Covid-19 was having in the New Zealand, including on the fishing industry.
He said late submissions would be considered "on a case-by-case basis within reason, given the circumstances".
Mr Beckert also said Doc had now written to the Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association offering to meet and addressing the organisation’s concerns.
"We want to hear everyone’s views on the proposed network – if people think it will be effective, and how it is likely to affect them," he said.
"It’s important that people submit to have their say and help inform ministerial decisions.
"Once consultation closes, the submissions will inform the Minister of Conservation’s and the Minister of Fisheries’ final decisions on the marine protection proposals."