Our seas deserve better

 A recently launched marine planning forum is a good example of how competing interests can be managed, says Kevin Hackwell.

The Hauraki Gulf is not only a significant recreational playground for the people of Auckland and an important area for commercial shipping and fishing. It is also a very important area for marine life.

It is the year-round home of 11-15-metre-long Bryde’s whales. These animals are critically endangered because of the numbers that are killed after being struck by ships.

The gulf is also home to the black petrel, which now only breeds on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) and Hauturu (Little Barrier Island). The waters of the gulf are an important feeding ground for the bird. But it is the seabird most at risk from commercial fishing in New Zealand. It is estimated there were 1080-1900 annual bird deaths between 2006 and 2011.

The Hauraki Gulf Forum, which is mostly made up of central and local government and iwi representatives, manages the pressures from users of the gulf. The forum is concerned that the health of the gulf is steadily declining and has initiated a collaborative marine spatial planning process that will involve all key stakeholders over the next two years.

Unfortunately, such an inclusive and comprehensive approach to planning in the marine environment is not the norm.

With our rarest marine mammal, the Mäui’s dolphin, we stumble from one crisis to another. Progress on the country’s modest international commitment to protect at least 10 per cent of its coastal and marine territory through a network of marine protected areas by 2020 has been slow. Only 7 per cent of our territorial sea and just 0.3 per cent of our total marine environment is protected by marine reserves.

One problem is that, despite many promises, the proposed Marine Reserves Bill has yet to resurface from where it has been languishing in the parliamentary system for nearly a decade. Despite this, Conservation Minister Nick Smith recently proposed to restart the process for establishing marine reserves on the Otago and Southland coasts, using the existing inadequate processes that have already failed twice to work in this corner of the South Island.

Several years ago the fishing industry managed to convince the government to adopt its proposal to establish areas where they could continue to fish so long as they did not let their trawl nets touch the bottom. These areas were given the grand name of “benthic protected areas”. But the lack of genuine protection was recently highlighted by a proposal to suck up all the available sediment in one of the benthic protected areas, process the materials through giant centrifuges, remove the lumps of phosphate, then dump the (now lifeless) tailings on to the surface of the sea.

Despite being incredibly destructive, this would be perfectly legal in the benthic protected areas of the Chatham Rise. This proposal remains on the cards.

We also face the threat of oil and gas exploration in the deep and rough waters of our continental shelf. The government has made it as easy as possible for offshore oil and gas exploration proposals by restricting rights of protest, by paying millions for preliminary surveys and by removing the public’s right to participate in the consenting processes. As a result, the government alone will determine if and how drilling should happen.

Most of the policy and planning around the marine environment is a mess. This is why Forest & Bird recently commissioned a report to inform our oceans management policy and to support us in advocating for new marine protected areas (MPAs).

The report made recommendations for future MPA design processes, particularly for no-take zones, and highlighted research that shows MPAs make a big contribution to overall fish populations by injecting greater numbers of fish larvae into the ecosystem.

Forest & Bird will be campaigning in 2014 for a network of marine protected areas and better laws and processes for managing our huge and very special marine environment. The marine spatial planning process that’s under way in Auckland should be a good example of the widespread advantages of a comprehensive approach.

In the meantime, the government could take the opportunity to adopt the proposal for a marine sanctuary encompassing the whole of the Exclusive Economic Zone around the Kermadec Islands, to the north of New Zealand.

Kevin Hackwell is Forest & Bird’s Advocacy Manager.