Tasman Bay “Water Wars”

Tasman Bay “Water Wars”

I’ve been working on a  magazine article on marine farming, which has brought me into contact with some old friends and raised some old memories.  Coincidently a new aquaculture law was passed last week which many hope will bring an end to the fighting between marine farmers and commercial fisherman over water space.

My mind went back to a hearing of the Environment Court in May 2000 in Nelson, where the same, bitter battle was being fought. In particular, to the death of one of the witnesses. Here’s how it was reported  at the time:

“Nelson, NZPA
May 4 – The death of a key witness has caused the adjournment of an Environment Court hearing on how aquaculture should be allowed to develop in Golden and Tasman Bays.

Marine biologist Andrew Ritchie, 37, a witness for a group of marine farming companies, died suddenly on Tuesday.

He died on the evening after he had given evidence, which he was to be cross-examined on.

The court is hearing appeals against the Tasman District Council’s proposed resource management plan, with the key issue being the council’s decision to ban marine farming within three nautical miles of the shore.

Mr Ritchie worked for Blenheim-based Marlborough Seafoods, one of the companies in the group seeking space for marine farming, mostly outside the exclusion zone. He had carried out surveys of sites  dentified by the group, to see whether they were appropriate for marine farming activities.

The court reconvened this morning to decide how the case should now proceed. The session was closed  to the public. A decision on how the case will proceed was to be given on Monday.  “

The court had been under a lot of time pressure and the judge had ruled that no new expert witnesses could be called. Counsel for one of the parties objecting to marine farming wanted to make some points about the scallop fishery, so Andy Ritchie was asked to comment on a detailed stock assessment report. When he  complained that this was not his work and was outside his field of expertise, the judge ruled that the cross-examination should continue. She presumably felt that his opinions may be helpful to the court.  After an intense grilling, the court was adjourned for the day. Andy was told to take the report home for  study (but was not to discuss it with anybody) and the cross-examination would continue the next day.

When court resumed the next day the witness failed to appear. One can only guess at the pressure that poor guy was under.  His death was felt by everybody.

The incident prompted me to discuss the issues with all Cawthron staff who served as expert witnesses.  I advised them to simply refuse to answer questions they considered were outside their area of expertise, that Cawthron would back them all the way.  It’s fair  to say that we were appalled at the judge’s performance.

When the court eventually resumed a couple of weeks later, one incident helped to provide some light relief. A Cawthron marine scientist was the next witness, giving evidence on behalf of a marine farming
group. He was to be cross-examined by the lawyer acting for their opponents, the very same lawyer who had given Andy Ritchie such a hard time. “Dr Grange, ..” began the lawyer and then followed a long, complicated, triple barrelled question.  Our man stood up.  “I’m Dr Gillespie, not Dr Grange” he said and sat down again.  Muffled laughter from those of the legal profession in the court as the embarrassed lawyer had to repeat the whole question once more. (Then followed a virtuoso performance by Dr Gillespie, during which he even had the cross-examining  QC holding up marine charts for him so a point could be explained to the judge.)

The Marine Farmers Association eventually took up a collection, to which Cawthron and its staff were contributors, which was used to establish the “Andy Ritchie Scholarship” at Victoria University, for marine biology students.

Now, more than 11 years later, the battle over water rights between fishermen and marine farmers continues. I guess it’s not unusual, there must be many precedents around the world. I seem to remember the early settlers in the American West took a lot more than 11 years to sort out similar problems, between ranchers and farmers.  Let’s hope this new legislation provides a way forward.

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