Raewyn Peart: Marine jewel can shine once again

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Raewyn Peart says the spatial plan, if embraced, can be a major turning point for the iconic Hauraki Gulf.

A wildlife conservation sanctuary being created on Rotoroa Island will enhance the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. Photo / Natalie Slade
A wildlife conservation sanctuary being created on Rotoroa Island will enhance the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. Photo / Natalie Slade

This has been a great summer - long, hot and settled. Aucklanders have flocked to the region's beaches to enjoy the balmy waters and all they have to offer; swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, snorkelling, sailing and much more.

Some have been lucky enough to see a pod of dolphins cavorting past or the towering dorsal fin of an orca. Others have spotted the small blue penguins bobbing up and down in the waves, have marvelled at the kamikaze diving antics of the Australasian gannets, or have observed flocks of petrels resting on the oily surface of calm seas. A few will have seen the mighty Bryde's whale, a resident of the area, scooping up large mouthfuls of schooling fish.

The Hauraki Gulf is a gem, a unique and marvellous place which we all can enjoy and be better for it. But the gulf is becoming only a shadow of what it once was.

The Hauraki Gulf was first formed at the end of the last ice age, when rising seas flooded a network of volcanic cones and river valleys, producing a shallow, diverse and highly productive marine area. The uniqueness of the gulf is accentuated by the warm east Auckland current, which eddies into the gulf each summer, bringing with it warm waters and occasionally tropical species such as turtles.

By all accounts, the gulf was once thriving with marine life. In the late 1890s there are reports of parties of recreational fishers catching thousands of snapper just off Auckland. But the introduction of steam trawlers in the early 20th century soon put paid to that. Their large nets scooped up most of the fish, and the heavy equipment used to weight the nets down as they were dragged along trashed areas of the seabed where the small fish had found refuge.

The Firth of Thames was once thickly carpeted with mussel beds, but dredging, which began during the 1920s, quickly destroyed these. They have never recovered. The vast wetlands of the Hauraki Plains, which trapped the soil washed off the land before it could reach the sea, were drained and reclaimed for farming during the early 20th century. Since then, vast quantities of sediment have flooded into the Firth of Thames and spread out around the inner gulf, blanketing the seabed and any life on it. This has been accompanied, more recently, by large amounts of nutrients washing off farmed soils.

Not surprisingly all these changes, along with the development of New Zealand's largest city on its shores, have fundamentally changed the Hauraki Gulf. There are now far fewer fish, dolphins, whales and seabirds. And as highlighted by the Hauraki Gulf Forum's 2011 State of Our Gulf Report, the situation is continuing to deteriorate.

But this is now set to change. The Auckland Council and the Waikato Regional Council have both given their final approval for the start of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan initiative. The project will span two years.

This will not be just another planning exercise, undertaken by bureaucrats, to add to the plethora of existing plans. The marine spatial plan is a groundbreaking initiative, something which has never been done before in New Zealand. It will bring together Maori, fishers, boaties, aquaculturalists, farmers, environmentalists and many others to chart out a new future for the Hauraki Gulf. This is a future which should see a marked shift from the ongoing deterioration which has occurred over the past 150 years, to the gradual restoration of the health and productivity of the gulf.

It will be a future which is inclusive. Everyone stands to gain from a marine environment which has cleaner water, more fish and intact, thriving ecosystems. Similar to the approach taken with the Land and Water Forum, the process will be collaborative rather than combative, seeking common ground rather than division.

The marine spatial plan can be a major turning point for the Hauraki Gulf if all parties embrace its potential in a constructive manner. It can be something which future generations look back on with pride. A time when visionary people took risks and broke new ground. A time when Aucklanders put aside the old litigious way of working to put the shine back on the jewel in Auckland's crown.

Raewyn Peart works for the Environmental Defence Society.

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