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Otago Harbour will be opened for the commercial harvesting of cockles for the first time in 30 years following a decision to grant a special research permit to a Dunedin fishing company.
The Ministry of Fisheries confirmed yesterday it had granted a special permit to Southern Clams to carry out research trials on commercial cockle-fishing in the middle banks of the harbour near Port Chalmers.
The permit had been issued for three years, with a possible two-year extension, allowing for 650 tonnes of Southern Clams' 1140-tonne annual quota.
Yesterday's announcement disappointed one of the men behind a proposed Otago Harbour mataitai, which would exclude commercial fishing.
Otakou runanga project manager Hoani Langsbury said "we are unhappy with the decision", declining to comment further until the runanga had discussed the development.
It is understood Southern Clams would be exempt from any mataitai and would be able to fish the area during the permitted period.
Speaking from France last night, Southern Clams director Roger Belton said he was "delighted" with the ministry's decision.
The fishery had the potential to become "Dunedin's primary production activity".
The research permit would give Southern Clams the opportunity to show cockles could be commercially harvested with minimal environmental impact, he said.
Mr Belton said he supported the concept of a mataitai but did not agree with the application including the whole harbour.
"There is room for diversification," he said.
If the mataitai was granted, he hoped any future decision on commercial fishing would be made by the ministry rather than the local runanga.
The company needed to secure another source of supply.
The company was unable to harvest Papanui Inlet cockles because of poor water quality limiting it to Blueskin Bay.
It was important the company had access to other cockles because "it gives us a more stable operation".
The company exported 80% of its live cockles to North America, Europe and Asia, as "the product is considered to be world class".
The company was trying to develop the domestic market for cockles.
Ministry inshore fisheries manager Rose Grindley said the research trials would help the assessment of whether the commercial fishing of cockles in Otago Harbour could be sustainable.
Trials would be conducted over 90ha in the middle of the harbour near Port Chalmers, with a further 90ha acting as a control area.
Cockles taken under the research permit could be sold under the permit, she said.
• Harvests most of its 1500 tonnes quota from Blueskin Bay.
• Employs 23 full-time staff in harvesting, processing and marketing.
• The catch is worth about $10 million per annum to the local economy.
• Permitted to take 650 tonnes of cockles per year from Otago Harbour for three years, with the possibility of extension for a further two years.
• Cockles are harvested using a hand-hauled dredge and exported to Europe, North America and Asia, where they are highly sought-after as littleneck clams.
• Estimated to contain 70,000 tonnes of cockles.
• Believed to be the largest stock of cockles in New Zealand.
• Has been closed to commercial harvesting of some shellfish species, including cockles, for at least 30 years.