Huge resource potential needs ecological bottom-lines, writes Gareth Morgan.
The North, South and Stewart Islands comprise a mere 5 per cent of New Zealand's total territory - that's if we regard our country as extending to the edge of our recognised extended continental shelf (ECS).
If we were to get really ambitious and claim that the Ross Dependency belongs to us as well - a moot point while the Antarctic Treaty remains - then our land mass as we think of it, is only 2 per cent of our territory.
Whatever, it's clear we occupy just a sliver of our overall territory and two implications are obvious:
* We have a heap of territory out there that we could be accessing for its resources - fish, energy and minerals.
* This vast expanse requires adequate management if the environmental downside from exploitation isn't to outweigh any economic benefits.
The absence of any coherent oceans policy or minister suggests we aren't really across either the potential or its management as yet.
Indeed, we have a pretty fragmented approach to matters marine with responsibilities falling across a suite of ministries - Ministry for Primary Industries, Department of Conservation, Ministry for the Environment, Ministry of Economic Development and Maritime New Zealand.
With such a gaggle of agencies involved you can bet your bottom dollar that a co-ordinated and consistent approach to oceans management remains beyond us.
Here's just one example; no trawl areas have been established to protect the ocean floor from fishing. One of those now has a prospecting permit issued for phosphate.
The current Government is really keen to see the economic benefits from the resource potential of our ocean and seabed stepped up - and we know there is high interest in oil and gas exploration in the Great South Basin, offshore Taranaki, and off the east coast of both the North and South Islands.
To date the extent of overall economic activity out there relative to the acreage of the real estate is almost negligible.
There are reasons for this. After all, it was relatively recently, in 1982, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) granted us a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
This catapulted the economic potential of New Zealand - the area of our territory in effect increased over tenfold by that stroke of a pen to over 4 million sq km.
The rules bestow upon us rights to use the resources out there, along with the responsibility of looking after the area. The potential is mind-boggling and the current Government knows it.
But there's more.
In 2008 the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved addition of an extra 1.7 million sq km of seafloor to lie within the perimeter of our continental shelf.
Our rights to the resources in the seabed out there are now protected by this treaty.
Currently activity within our EEZ brings in $100 million in royalties directly to the Government, although that of course is likely to be a pathetic fraction of the income that could be earned in total from economic activity over the whole 6 million sq km that is now at our disposal.
Globally, our region is precious because of its natural diversity, ranging from the subtropics to the subantarctic.
Our oceans are thought to hold around 10 per cent of the total global marine biodiversity - many of the species found here are found nowhere else on Earth.
This makes it imperative that we get a good grip on managing this vast ocean and seafloor resource.
It's no longer tenable to ignore it simply because we can't see it from standing on the peaks of the Coromandel.
If we were to adopt an approach analogous to what we do with land above sea level, we would zone it and the users within certain zones would face charges, just like councils levy property rates. At least in this way the users would fund the maintenance of the zones' conservation and protection.
In addition the Government should issue tradable leasing rights to access those marine resources we're happy to see exploited in order that the most profitable endeavours are those that go ahead.
The last thing we want to repeat out there is the debacle we've created with our onshore rivers, where the "first come first served" approach to water access has denied us the most efficient allocation of that resource - or even worse where it's resulted in the ruining of waterways through over-exploitation.
Ecological bottom-lines below which resources cannot be removed are critical definitions of our conservation values.
That many of our rivers reaching the sea have no minimum flow rates is an illustration of the environmental vandalism we've fostered in that area.
These tradable lease rights should also come with a rental attached. We should learn also from the cock-up we made with establishing the Quota Management System for fisheries.
There we privatised common rights by giving quota to established fishers without extracting any compensation or resource rental for the public who are the owners of our natural resource.
Spatial management of this vast marine real estate, which is some 20 times larger than our land mass, should lie at the core of our governance rules.
No-take marine reserves are essential for protecting biodiversity, yet they are usually opposed by fishers. Their view is narrow-minded.
Recent research on the Great Barrier Reef shows that reserves can boost the fish stock well beyond their boundaries.
By how much and how far is species dependent, but numbers of some species in that location were boosted up to 30km beyond the boundary.
So establishing a network of no-take marine reserves across our EEZ is an imperative for enhancing biodiversity and the long-term survival of our fish resource, let alone boosting our fishing resource - a classic case where environmental and economic imperatives are in sync.
Currently our marine reserves cover a derisible 0.3-0.4 per cent of our EEZ.
They need to be 25 times larger, yet the legislation needed to make this happen has been sitting in select committee for 10 years.
Further, our fisheries management people need to adopt best practice and take a whole-of-ecology approach to setting catch limits.
Both the paucity of science behind our fisheries management and the dearth of marine reserves are further indicators of the lack of ecological bottom lines that governments attach to development policy in New Zealand.
Parliament is considering currently the EEZ Bill.
It is a poor shadow of the principles of resource management outlined above, provides no environmental bottom lines and is a continuation of the greenwash New Zealand has become famous for. As an example it talks about striking a "balance" between economic and environmental values.
We have seen with fishing that this often means the easier to measure economic values take precedence.
Yet ironically, international best practice known as the "precautionary approach" has been championed by us with the toothfish fishery in the Ross Sea.
How odd, then, that we don't deign to apply it in our own EEZ. Work that one out.
While the Tourism Board may have stepped back from using the 100 per cent Pure New Zealand slogan as a factual description of New Zealand to admitting it's nowadays an aspirational goal, the lack of commitment to lining up environmental with economic objectives as illustrated in this bill, should compel the Tourism Board to acknowledge its 1999 100 per cent Pure New Zealand declaration as an inconvenient untruth.
Any opinions expressed in this column are Gareth Morgan's personal views and are not made on behalf of Gareth Morgan Investments.