Nearly 10 per cent of our coastal marine area is now safeguarded by reserves. But are we really doing enough to protect our ocean habitats? As we mark Seaweek 2015, science reporter Jamie Morton poses five key questions.


Why do marine reserves matter?
We might think of them as sanctuaries for our cherished ocean species and habitats, but their benefits stretch well beyond conservation.

As a study by marine biologist Dr Bill Ballantine put it, they are as important to science as clean apparatus is to chemistry.

Marine reserves, he said, were the "controls for the uncontrolled experiment that is happening due to fishing and other human activities".

While ocean ecosystems could act as sentinels of large-scale changes in our environment, protecting them also had valuable spin-offs away from the water in education, recreation and management, tourism and coastal planning.

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The Department of Conservation states marine reserves can be established in areas that contain underwater scenery, natural features, or marine life of such distinctive quality, or "so typical, beautiful or unique" that their continued preservation is in the national interest.

Our precious native birds and insects spring to mind when we think of the incredible diversity of endemic and endangered species New Zealand has, yet 80 per cent of our indigenous biodiversity may be found in the sea.

We know that more than 15,000 marine species inhabit our territorial seas and our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - the world's fourth largest - but there may be a further 50,000 yet to be found in our waters.

An average seven new marine species are identified every fortnight - something that would seem remarkable if not for the fact that less than 1 per cent of our marine environment has ever been surveyed.

As Dr Ballantine's study suggested, it's what we don't know about our blue backyard that has propelled the case for more reserves.

New Zealand's first marine reserve, Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve, which Dr Ballantine helped establish in the 1970s, is also probably our best known - around 300,000 people visit each year.

Forty years later, 44 marine reserves have been created off our shores.

New reserves set up last year - including about 435,000ha of territory around the subantarctic Campbell Island, Antipodes Islands and Bounty Islands - increased New Zealand's protection across territorial waters by half. The subantarctic reserves are, unsurprisingly, our southern-most reserve - their huge northern counterpart, the Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve, lies 1000km northeast of the North Island and supports our only truly subtropical marine systems across 745,000ha of ocean.

Are we doing enough?

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry told the

Herald

she was satisfied the planning work on marine protected areas (MPAs) was progressing well within our territorial sea area.

There had also been progress towards extending MPAs in areas that were under-represented, she said.

The Government would continue to ensure any gaps were identified so the full range of coastal habitat types were included, and would advance similar protections in the EEZ.

But although the National-led Government can claim credit for the establishment of 10 new reserves since 2008, environmental organisations argue we're still doing far from what's needed.

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry.
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry.

Just under 10 per cent of our territorial sea, or waters within 12 nautical miles of the coast, is now protected by marine reserves - close to the target recommended by the UN. But when compared against territorial sea and all 4.4 million sq km of our EEZ, just 0.4 per cent is covered by protected areas, although any commercial activities beyond fishing are still subject to environmental regulations under the recently updated EEZ Act.

Just under a third of the EEZ was also covered by benthic protection areas, where bottom trawling and dredging is banned, while 2.5 per cent of our territorial waters are partially protected under another classification applying to cases such as cable and pipeline zones and area-based fisheries restrictions. By comparison, around a third of our land fell within some form of protected area.

A key recommendation from the World Parks Congress, held in November, was for states to urgently create networks of marine protected areas, with each marine habitat having a no-take zone spanning at least 30 per cent of the area. It was recommended that around 30 per cent of the planet should be set aside for no-take reserves, with half of it having overall protection.

An international obligation and our national policy was to protect 10 per cent of our marine environment by 2020 - a target Peter Hardstaff of WWF New Zealand doubted we could ever come near within the next five years.

"At the current rate of progress, it would take over 400 years to fully protect 5 per cent of New Zealand's marine environment," he said. "New Zealand was once considered a leader in marine protection, however we are being left behind as many other countries introduce legislation for networks of MPAs, including the UK and the US, where no-take MPAs now make up 3 per cent of the US marine environment."

Environmental Defence Society policy director Raewyn Peart also considered the present level of protection as "very inadequate".

There were stretches of the coast, such as Northland, the east coast of the South Island and the Hauraki Gulf, with very little or no protection.

"In many areas, the abundance and variety of marine species are only a shadow of what they were a generation ago, strongly indicating that we need more protection."

But rather than working around percentages of area covered, Ms Peart felt good management of the zones was the real issue.

"Marine protection needs to be an iterative process, so that we put in place a network of protected areas, monitor them well and then adjust if we are not getting the outcomes we are after."

Extra pressures such as climate change and population growth in places like Auckland may mean greater areas need to be set aside than previously thought.


How are we going to improve things?
The Government plans to reform the Marine Reserves Act, extending the ability to create marine reserves out into the EEZ, and to allow creation of seabed protection areas, species sanctuaries, and recreational fishing parks. Two parks already identified would cover areas of the inner Hauraki Gulf and the Marlborough Sounds.

Ms Barry said ministers had been meeting regularly to craft the proposed legislation and a public discussion document will be released next month.

Presently, there was no provision for marine reserves in the EEZ and former Conservation Minister Nick Smith has described the operating Marine Reserves Act 1971 as "outdated" and "cumbersome".

Blue maomao Photo / Paihia Dive
Blue maomao Photo / Paihia Dive

A recent DoC briefing stated the 1971 Act failed to provide for effective collaborative planning or recognition of the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011, or for a purpose other than scientific study to lead to the establishment of marine protected areas. An overhaul would remove the need to use area-specific legislation and duplicate consultation to protect an area formally once the Government had accepted the work of forums set up by DoC and the Ministry for Primary Industries under the Marine Protected Areas Policy.

Recommendations from the first two forums have led to new reserves set up in the subantarctic islands and on the West Coast, while other collaborative efforts were under way in the Hauraki Gulf and in Otago.

Dunedin environmental lawyer Maree Baker-Galloway said the South East Marine Protection Forum she chaired was still in the early stages of forming plans to protect key sites, habitats and species from Timaru down to Waipapa Pt in Southland.

"These processes are usually quite contentious and can really divide communities, so the hope is that by doing it in this way, we will minimise the conflict and come up with a result that most people will accept and support."

Can we strike a balance between conservation and human activities?

By definition, some marine protected areas would place controls on such activities as fishing, mining and oil and gas extraction so habitats within them could be adequately protected, Ms Barry said.

Industry sectors were also getting a say on regional marine forums and she expected they would "actively engage" in talks behind new MPAs and the coming legislation review.

But recreational fishing lobby group LegaSea has remained opposed the concept of marine reserves, considering them a "misplaced" and "most inappropriate" tool in conservation.

"Far more direct interventions through the Fisheries Act aimed at restoring habitats and improving fishing behaviours, while cleaning up the run-off from the catchment, are where immediate conservation efforts should be aimed," spokesman Scott Macindoe said.

Raewyn Peart said the use of collaborative processes, when properly managed, could help to balance the various interests to achieve an outcome that benefits the marine environment.

"The problem with the marine protected area planning forums that have operated to date is that the various parties have not been able to agree."

She considered the emerging concept of marine spatial planning as "a very promising approach" to managing our marine areas, but Ms Barry said that given the extension of New Zealand's jurisdiction into the EEZ, the specific tools that might be used were yet to be determined.

Straterra, the industry group representing the New Zealand minerals sector, supported the establishment of more marine reserves and other forms of marine protection, but opposed designating specific EEZ areas for industry use, an approach it saw as unsuited to offshore mineral exploration.

Mr Hardstaff felt that beyond establishing a network of MPAs, it was unlikely that large areas of the EEZ will be zoned for specific uses like fishing or mining, "so the kind of spatial planning that takes place on land may not be applicable for the deeper ocean".

"That said, a process of marine conservation planning is needed that will use science to determine which areas need full protection and which areas are more appropriate for other activities," he said. "It should also be possible through such a planning process to ensure the establishment of a network of protected areas that achieves high environmental integrity with least impact on existing economic activities."

What does the average Kiwi think?

A survey co-authored by World Wildlife Fund-NZ and published in the journal

Marine Policy

, revealed many Kiwis hugely over-estimate our present level of protection. On average, the 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. The study authors recommended more public education to highlight the actual levels.

Bronwen Golder, director of the Kermadec Initiative of the Pew Environment Group, believed marine reserves didn't seem important enough to New Zealanders, given what she considered as a lack of progress.

A female Sea Lion keeps a watchful eye on the shore line at Tagua Bay, Auckland Islands. Photo / Greg Bowker
A female Sea Lion keeps a watchful eye on the shore line at Tagua Bay, Auckland Islands. Photo / Greg Bowker

"While presidents and prime ministers around the world have moved to create new, large and fully protected marine reserves around the world, New Zealand has stood still."

But Ms Barry described our oceans as the new frontier for conservation, and saw the marine environment was "a crucial part" of our national identity.

"For a wide range of New Zealanders, including myself, it has significant natural, economic and cultural value," she said. "It is a vast resource and not as well understood as our land environment and I think most New Zealanders accept that marine protected areas are part of the full solution to managing our sea and its resources."

Seaweek, which runs until Sunday - is a national celebration of our marine environment.

For more information
seaweek.org.nz.