Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

New marine reserves: Protecting paradise

Three reserves finally safeguard the ocean wonderland of our subantarctic islands, writes science reporter Jamie Morton.

The new subantarctic island marine reserves help protect Southern Ocean birds like the royal albatross, one of 216 species on the islands. Picture / Greg Bowker
The new subantarctic island marine reserves help protect Southern Ocean birds like the royal albatross, one of 216 species on the islands. Picture / Greg Bowker

There's no signpost to say you're nearing New Zealand's subantarctic islands, but a welcome that's a little more dramatic. One of the first beacons of this pristine but harsh ecological paradise is one of its most majestic residents: the albatross.

Watching the world's largest seabird swoop around the boat, scientists like the Department of Conservation's Dr Debbie Freeman know a wonderland lies just over the horizon.

Millions of seabirds make their home on these storm-tossed islands in the Southern Ocean - more than in all of Europe.

Combine them - the Auckland Islands, the Bounty Islands, the Antipodes Islands, the Snares and Campbell Island - and you have a line-up of some of the planet's rarest and most intriguing bird species.

There's the world's largest albatross, its rarest duck, and also its rarest cormorant.

Also among 216 different species of bird are erect-crested penguins, Salvins mollymawks, several species of albatross and a type of parakeet known to feast on meat.

And that's just the birdlife. A typically curious southern right whale might pop up alongside the boat, and visitors may also encounter the world's rarest sea lion and megaherbs, justly named for their huge leaves and oddly-coloured flowers.

Lying just beneath the waves is a marine biologist's dream.

"It's just spectacular for a marine scientist to jump in the water and see species that have never been seen before," Dr Freeman said.

Around the Antipodes Islands, rocky underwater walls are blanketed with pink encrusted seaweeds, forming layers that resemble coral.

Cast against this resplendent canvas are brightly coloured sponges and sea cucumbers.

The islands boast underwater forests of unique antipodean bull kelp, a species larger than any other found in New Zealand, alongside other unique marine species such as giant spider crabs and white-footed paua.

What's not so romantic is the weather - on Campbell Island, the mean annual temperature is 6C, wind gusts reach over 96km per hour and rain falls on 325 days of the year.

This is because the islands lie between the "roaring forties" and "furious fifties" - the area between 47deg south and 52deg south where the Southern Ocean is at its wildest.

But despite these extreme conditions, the islands have remained without blanket protection from fishing, petroleum exploration, mining and other practices.

A decade after a huge marine reserve was established at the Auckland Islands, gumboot-clad Conservation Minister Nick Smith on Sunday stepped on to Campbell Island and rammed in a sign - formally opening New Zealand's newest marine reserves.

A bill to establish the subantarctic reserves was introduced in 2011 and passed last year.

The reserves, covering 435,000ha in all, take in ocean territory around Campbell Island, the Antipodes Islands and Bounty Islands.

Dr Freeman said the reserves would preserve each island's different species and communities that were so precious to New Zealand.

But it was also an internationally significant step, preserving the habitats for the rest of the world and finally fulfilling obligations that came with the islands gaining World Heritage status in 1998.

The earliest human contact with the subantarctic islands has been a sorry passage of history for New Zealand's wildlife.

Not long after the islands were discovered, sealers moved in slaughtering tens of thousands of seals and wiping out populations that have only recently begun to recover.

This soon gave way to whaling.

In the last century, failed attempts at farming left a legacy of unwanted pests and animals on Campbell Island, all of which have since been eradicated.

But lately there has been little human impact.

There had been no commercial fishing in the territorial sea around the Antipodes group and Campbell Island, and fishing had mainly been around the Bounty and Auckland Islands.

The new reserve at Campbell Island allows for experimental fishing of deepwater crabs, to be reviewed in a few years.

An L-shaped reserve at the Bounty Islands has been designed to avoid the existing commercial fishery, allowing ling fishing to continue.

But Dr Freeman said the reserves would protect each of the island's biodiversity.

Each group featured different ecosystems, something scientists had only recently discovered, and in many cases life on land and sea was interdependent.

On the Bounty Islands, for example, guano from seabirds and marine mammals fed straight into the sea, creating a soup for marine life.

"Particularly in areas where the land and sea are so interdependent, it's important that we protect both," Dr Freeman said.

"While islands themselves have been protected for over 50 years as nature reserves, I think it's great now that we can actually protect the marine environments as well."

For Dr Smith, personally opening the reserves had been a case of unfinished business.

He was Conservation Minister in the late 1990s and it was he who had advanced the case for World Heritage status.

"At the time, Unesco raised the issue of a lack of protection in the surrounding ocean environment," he said.

"I'm particularly pleased to be able to see that process through and provide for a complete protection."

The reserves expand the proportion of our territorial sea that is protected to 9.5 per cent, close to the target of 10 per cent recommended by the United Nations.

They also bring the number of marine reserves in New Zealand to 37 and protect an area 13 times larger than the total area of all the reserves in the country's three main islands.

Dr Smith said it had come to a compromise - fishing groups would have preferred the reserves smaller, while environmental groups wanted them larger.

"One of the things that should be celebrated about these reserves is that they came about because groups that had often been in conflict were working together and developing them in consensus," he said.

"Our own fishing industry has come a huge way over the last decade in being far more receptive to a conservation message, and recognising there needs to be a balance between New Zealand earning a living from its rich ocean waters, but also being prepared to set aside areas that have outstanding biodiversity values for permanent protection."

Green MP Gareth Hughes said he would have ensured the new reserves accounted for 100 per cent of their sea territory, adding that only less than 1 per cent of the country's exclusive economic zone was protected by reserves.

According to a new survey co-authored by World Wildlife Fund-NZ and published in the journal Marine Policy, this was something many Kiwis failed to realise.

On average, the New Zealand public thought that less than 30 per cent of our marine environment was protected by no-take reserves, and that 36 per cent should be protected.

In fact, only 0.3 per cent was protected by no-take reserves - the new additions have lifted this to 0.41 per cent - and the study authors recommended more public education to highlight the actual levels.

WWF-NZ nevertheless said it was "delighted" at the new reserves while Labour's conservation spokeswoman, Ruth Dyson, described them as a "big step forward".

Deepwater Group, which represents fishing fleets in the Southern Ocean, also welcomed the reserves, but still sought for vessels to be able to shelter on the islands during storms.

The creation of the reserves would have an impact on the industry, probably in the order of millions of dollars, which would in turn affect the long-term returns for New Zealand, Dr Smith said.

A government report showed the average catch from bottom long-lining for ling around the territorial sea in Bounty Islands and within 20 nautical miles (37km) of the islands between 1998 and 2008 had been 129 tonnes and 282 tonnes respectively, equating to returns of $507,000 and $1.11 million.

But Dr Smith said fisheries managers were able to gain from the reserves' baseline data accurately showing the natural levels of wild stock.

A study by Auckland University marine biologist Bill Ballantine compared the importance of marine reserves to science "as clean apparatus is to chemistry".

"They are controls for the uncontrolled experiment that is happening due to fishing and other human activities." The study listed wider benefits, including those directly to conservation, education, recreation and management, tourism and coastal planning.

Dr Smith said to move forward with new marine reserves, New Zealand needed to reform its 1971 legislation which he described as "outdated" and "cumbersome".

Most importantly, the legislation had not provided for the collaborative process that had seen the creation of the new reserves.

The Government instead had to use special legislation, which also gave the Navy legal power to enforce the protections.

In the meantime, he planned to oversee the establishment of more reserves this year.

"New Zealand is not a superpower in many areas - probably rugby, probably the dairy industry - but few New Zealanders recognise we've got the fourth-largest ocean area of any country in the world," he said.

"My view is that if New Zealand can't lead around responsible oceans management, who can?"


To read Jamie Morton's feature on the Auckland Islands visit tinyurl.com/lostislands.

- NZ Herald

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