A proposed marine reserve covering 6 per cent of the water in the Bay of Islands has been welcomed by conservation groups but is firmly opposed by some recreational fishers and charter boat operators.
Northland community group Fish Forever is proposing a no-take marine reserve protecting two of the most precious areas in the Bay: 1000ha centred on Waewaetorea and Okahu islands, north and west of Urupukapuka; and 900ha adjoining the Rawhiti Peninsula's Maunganui Bay, which is already subject to a fishing rahui. The marine reserve around the Poor Knights is 2400ha.
The proposal is the result of five years' research and consultation. Fish Forever is calling for feedback on the plan and suggested no-take areas by June 13. If it gets public backing, the group will put a formal proposal to the director-general of Conservation ahead of September's election.
The proposal was launched on Thursday night at the Copthorne in Waitangi, where marine ecologist Vince Kerr of Kamo said doing nothing while marine life disappeared was not an option.
The loss of the Bay's once "incredibly abundant" fish and crayfish was due in part to kina devouring the crucial kelp forests, because over-fishing meant there were no longer big snapper to keep kina numbers in check.
Other marine reserves, such as Leigh's Goat Island, had led to a ten-fold increase in fish numbers. Despite being a "very ordinary bit of coastline" compared to the Bay of Islands, it attracted 300,000 visitors and $28 million in direct spending a year.
Once marine reserves were established, their opponents often became their biggest supporters because they could see the benefits as fish numbers increased outside the protected areas as well as inside.
Bay of Islands Swordfish Club president Bruce Smith, however, said he used to be a fan of marine reserves but had changed his mind after researching their claimed benefits. In particular the fishing charter operator did not believe fish spread beyond their boundaries.
"The Poor Knights reserve is chocka with fish, but they don't spread out. All marine reserves do is put pressure on other areas," he said.
Mr Smith said reserves would be worthwhile if, once numbers built up, fish could be caught and released elsewhere to boost stocks over a wider area, but that was not allowed.
Former MP Dover Samuels, who was at the launch, commended the group for their bravery.
"Any time you mention marine reserves, you generate a lot of heat. There's a lot of competing interests, and many of them don't understand the benefits."
Mr Samuels said he supported the proposal but urged the group to get fishers and iwi around a table to explain what it would achieve.
"If you don't, you will have problems, especially with my whanaunga (relatives). Once you have the people on board, this kaupapa will succeed."
Forest and Bird has welcomed the proposal, saying protection for one of the country's most popular marine areas is long overdue.
Fish Forever also wants some estuaries made into scientific reserves, bringing the total area protected to 10 per cent of the Bay. The proposal includes a review after 25 years. Go to www.fishforever.org.nz for more information.