Five years' work went into the proposal to establish two marine reserves in the Bay of Islands, publicly unveiled at Waitangi last week, and now Fish Forever, Bay of Islands Maritime Park Inc., wants the community to decide if it has got it right.
The proposal is to establish two no-take reserves to protect 6.6 per cent of the waters within the Bay of Islands, one comprising 1000 hectares around Waewaetorea and Okahu islands, including the north and west of Urupukapuka, the other 900 hectares adjoining the Rawhiti Peninsula's Maunganui Bay, which is already covered by a fishing rahui.
The proposal deliberately excludes significant recreational fishing locations, although the reserves would be close enough to some to provide a 'shoulder' benefit for them.
The proposal is now available in detail on www.fishforever.org.nz, including a response document and a chart that respondents can use to mark those parts of the Bay that they would like to see protected. Assuming that it is not roundly rejected - and comprehensive consultation over the last five years strongly suggests that it will not be - the aim is to present a formal plan to the Director-General of Conservation before the September 20 general election.
Responses to the proposal will be welcomed via the website until June 13.
Julie Kidman, who opened Thursday evening's launch, said the degradation of the Bay's marine environment had reached the point where something had to be done to protect it for future generations.
"We can't do nothing. That is not an option," she said.
Marine ecologist Vince Kerr told guests that the populations of many marine species were a shadow of what they had once been. He had heard stories of crayfish being taken from the water with pitchforks, while the Far North's harbours had been home to massive populations of mullet, kahawai and trevally.
The inner Bay of Islands had been in a state of decline for decades, the loss of big specimens, particularly snapper and crayfish, leading to the development of kina barrens, where kelp forests had been destroyed, leading in turn to the winding down of the whole ecosystem.
It wasn't just a matter of numbers. Small snapper were only able to eat small kina, if at all. The loss of large snapper had enabled kina populations to explode, and other species were critically affected by that.
Marine reserves, which had been around for 40 years, were based on the "incredibly simple" idea of not fishing a given area to let nature "do its thing."
And reserves were a win-win. Mr Kerr said they were not only the best and only means of nurturing the marine environment, but were incredibly popular. Originally established for scientific studies, they had suddenly begun attracting thousands of people.
The reserve at Leigh's Goat Island was unbelievably successful, he said, attracting some 360,000 people a year, generating some $28 million for the local economy and creating 200 jobs.
Fellow Fish Forever member John Booth said the proposal was a good fit with the New Zealand biodiversity strategy, designed to preserve the representative and the rare. He noted that no marine area had official protection between the Poor Knights islands, Cape Reinga and down the west coast to Taranaki.
Ms Kidman added that a survey of more than 1000 people had produced a strong positive response, while more than 400 people had accepted an invitation to say where reserves should be established.
"Now we need the community to tell us if we've got it right before we take a formal proposal to the Director-General of Conservation ," she added.
The proposal had the strong support of Dover Samuels. The former MP and current regional councillor said rahui and reserves were clearly needed, but would generate a lot of heat and expose many competing interests.
"Many people will not understand the fundamentals of this proposal and its benefits," he said, adding that the ministers of Conservation, Fisheries and Maori Affairs would all have their patches to protect.
He admired the courage of those who had developed the proposal, and urged them to bring the various interests to the table to discuss it, "or you will have a problem," but that was not insurmountable.
"Just bring ordinary people together to have a conversation. Once you get people on board I think this kaupapa will succeed," he said.