Stewards of the Gulf

By Geoff Cumming

The Noises island group in the Hauraki Gulf is under threat from greedy fishers and careless visitors. Geoff Cumming meets the family who care for a piece of paradise.
Otata Island. Photo / Neureuter family
Otata Island. Photo / Neureuter family

Scattered like gems across the middle of the Hauraki Gulf is a cluster of islands - well, rocks, mostly - known as the Noises.

Their small size and relative distance from the mainland have spared them - until recent times - from the ecological havoc wreaked on other gulf islands and surrounding waters. The main islands are coated in pohutukawa forest: most who admire the green mounds on the horizon from the Waiheke ferry, or in a passing boat, assume they are in Department of Conservation hands and unoccupied.

Yet for four generations the Noises have provided the quietest, most enriching, summer escape on Earth for their family owners.

Just before Christmas every year, the Neureuter clan pack a boatload of food and essentials and head for the main island, Otata, for a month of replenishment.

This is no luxury island retreat; they sleep in tents and share use of the spartan wooden cabin unchanged since their Great Uncle Fred and Aunty Margaret renovated it in the 1930s.

There's no power; cooking is by camp oven or barbecue over an outdoor fireplace. The extended family share a longdrop and rely on rain for water: what they use to wash their hair is then used to wash their clothes before it goes on the vege garden. Tents are discreetly scattered in the surrounding bush.

It's like spending a month at a remote DoC campsite - but with no store if supplies run low. For food, apart from dry goods brought on the boat, they grow lettuces, cucumbers, courgettes, or pick native spinach and wild celery. They bake bread.

But their dietary staple is seafood - fish, scallops, mussels, crabs, oysters - plucked from the surrounding waters whose abundance is linked to offshore shell banks, reef systems and kelp forests around rocky outcrops. They take only what they need - a mantra passed down the generations.

From left, Sue Neureuter, Rod Neureuter and Zoe Neureuter. The Neureuter family are the title holders for the group of islands known as the Noises. Photo / Michael Craig
From left, Sue Neureuter, Rod Neureuter and Zoe Neureuter. The Neureuter family are the title holders for the group of islands known as the Noises. Photo / Michael Craig

Siblings Rod, Sue and Zoe Neureuter have spent summer this way for upwards of 50 years - ever since their parents Brian and Marlene brought them here as toddlers. Rod's wife Sharon, their children Joseph and Laura, and Sue and Zoe's offspring all embrace this lifestyle.

"Some people ask 'what do you do all day?' But there's so much to do out here," says Sharon, a Papamoa teacher. Between meals and sunset wine-time, it's an active month of swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, fishing, bush-walking and weed clearance.

"We always come away feeling healthier," Zoe says.

Father Brian inherited the islands from his uncle, Fred Wainhouse, a master mariner who bought the islands from another sea captain. When Fred retired, he and Margaret lived virtually full time in the four-square cottage, with help from Brian, who worked on boats for the harbour board.

"Dad never needed any extras - he just needed this," Sue says. "He would bring one pair of shorts to the island and he expected us to be the same. He was an absolute conservationist - but if I ever called him a greenie he would explode."

The sparse shopping list passed down by Aunty Margaret has expanded over the years. Back then, just getting to the islands about 30km northeast of Auckland was a feat - a Subritzky's boat would drop them off thanks to Brian's connections. The rule with food was if it won't last a month, don't bring it.

The bach in earlier times. Photo / Neureuter family
The bach in earlier times. Photo / Neureuter family

These days, they dial up Steve Latham of Auckland Sea Shuttles, and fill his boat to the brim with food, drinks, kayaks and paddle boards. There's the makings of a yuletide feast - roast turkey and Christmas pudding for the camp oven - but few other indulgences.

Their summer break is a shared priority - the extended family get along famously, gently ribbing each other. Annual rituals are repeated: making damper; "bombing" in a water hole; bush walks to the lookout where their parents' ashes were scattered; sleeping on the spit under the stars.

The sad thing is each year we witness the decline. The sound of the gulls - that's my favourite sound; but each year it's less and less. I feel sad for my grandchildren.
Sue Neureuter

It's a deliberately modest lifestyle based on sustainability. Unfortunately, that cannot be said of some who visit these shores.

Over the years the Neureuters have observed a decline in abundance of marine and bird life, which mirrors what has happened elsewhere in the gulf and which gnaws at them daily. Their islands have become both an escape and a cause.

"The sad thing is each year we witness the decline," Sharon says. "The sound of the gulls - that's my favourite sound; but each year it's less and less.

"I feel sad for my grandchildren."

Each sibling tells a similar story of how things used to be.

"The crayfish used to be crawling over each other," Rod says. "Now there's just a massive kina barren because the crays are gone."

Zoe recalls childhood competitions to see how many different species they could find in rock pools teeming with rock crabs. Most pools are barren now.

Landing at the island. Photo / Neureuter family
Landing at the island. Photo / Neureuter family

Purple sponges and nudibranches have vanished from the shellfish beds; yellow-eyed mullet and squid are no longer seen. Horse mussels are confined closer to shore.

Rod, the main fisher, still catches snapper and kahawai and the occasional kingfish - "but everything's getting smaller".

"We would go out after dinner with Dad and catch enough to last a few days; we didn't need a lot."

The problem stems from Auckland's relentless population growth and increased marine mobility - bigger, faster boats with GPS navigation and fish-finders bringing recreational fishers and divers, with commercial longliners further out.

Word spread decades ago about the scallop bed off Otata's main beach - so too the ease of the snapper and kahawai fishing.

In fair weather, it's "boats for breakfast" around these islands, Rod says - 60 to 80 on some days, and not just at holiday peaks.

"Everybody in fishing circles knows the Noises. Between longliners and recreational fishers, it's just been hammered over the years."

Some have no business being this far from the Waitemata Harbour - like the guy on the jet ski they helped, after he decided to come ashore and filled his engine with stones.

Spearfishing has taken off as the snapper have declined; many boats carry scallop dredges which wreck seafloor habitats. Dismayingly, many visitors don't give a damn for sustainability.

On the day I visit, a 20-knot sou'wester has whipped the gulf into a furious boil and just a handful of boats are anchored on the sheltered side. Just getting ashore is tricky -- navigating submerged rocks and clambering up the steep pebble beach called Blinking Eye for the rock formation at one end.

Laura Neureuter collects lettuce from the garden on the Otata Island. Photo / Michael Craig
Laura Neureuter collects lettuce from the garden on the Otata Island. Photo / Michael Craig

Rod takes me around the two main islands in Sue's 4m tinnie. The islands are chiselled greywacke, the shoreline riven with caves and coves - and rocks. Seabirds guard their nests on sheer cliffs or sit on top watching the terns and sooty shearwaters working offshore. Rod knows every nook and cranny, sneaking through impossible gaps to see little blue penguins, pied shags perched on rocks, black-backed gulls guarding fluffy brown chicks. We cruise through a work-up and pick up a kahawai for lunch.

To casual visitors nature may seem to be in rude health here but the Neureuters know this is far from normal.

The forest on Otata - pohutukawa and kohekohe - has bounced back after a fire in the 1930s started by visitors and the family spend time each summer nurturing the bush habitats, clearing moth plant, buckthorn and phoenix palm seedlings. The islands were a pilot for the country's offshore island pest eradication programme; little Maria (Ruapuke) Island was the first to be cleared of rats. Now, it has a colony of white-faced storm petrels. Geckos from here have been used to recolonise other gulf islands.

In a partnership with Auckland Zoo, 1000 giant wetas were last year released on Motuhoropapa, the second biggest island. They are thriving and there are plans to release other vulnerable invertebrates. There are native shrubs here not found on other islands.

But, says Sue: "The more effort we put into the land the more we realise the total disregard for the waters around the island. They are so connected - [management] needs to be integrated."

Between meals and sunset wine-time, the family's summer visit is an active month of swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, fishing, bush-walking and weed clearance. Photo / Neureuter family
Between meals and sunset wine-time, the family's summer visit is an active month of swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, fishing, bush-walking and weed clearance. Photo / Neureuter family

The islands were once a cacophony of sound but the fall in seabird numbers reflects the reduced availability of fish and shellfish, she says.

"Everyone focuses on the snapper and crayfish but there's an entire ecosystem that's disappearing."

It's not just population growth: it's the behaviour of an uncaring minority, and the ignorance, which frustrates the family.

They watch people dive for scallops for up to an hour when 20 minutes would give them all they need. They despair at the damage to shell-bed and reef ecosystems caused by scallop dredges. "It used to be beautiful out there with purple sponges and nudibranches," Sue says. "The scallops are doing okay but the dredges have destroyed the ecosystem for other species."

Sue tells of the guy who set a gill net across two channels and back to a reef - then abandoned it for 27 hours. She snorkelled out and freed nearly three dozen "hopelessly trapped" eagle rays and stingrays. "I was shaking and crying at the end. I rang MPI and they said it was perfectly legal."

A sad sight is a pied shag hung from a branch, caught by a fishing line. Whoever hooked it had cut the line, not realising the bird would fly home to an agonising death.

People bring dogs ashore prompting oyster catchers to shoo them off - giving gulls time to swoop on their nests.

"It took us time to realise that a whole urban generation has grown up who don't know these things," Sue says.

A dead shag caught in fishing monofilament hangs from a tree on Otata Island. Photo / Michael Craig
A dead shag caught in fishing monofilament hangs from a tree on Otata Island. Photo / Michael Craig

Out snorkelling before New Year, she confronted a spear fisherman shooting red moki, oblivious to the 40cm size restriction. "Ignorance is not really an excuse," Rod says.

Then there are the "dickheads" who came ashore and lit a fire to cook their catch, abandoning it when the wind got up without dousing the fire. We inspect the charred remains of the tiniest snapper wrapped in tinfoil.

The Neureuters have had enough of watching and smouldering - they are sounding the alarm. Their call is for some kind of biodiversity protection for the surrounding waters and a recovery plan.

Sue's frustration led to her involvement with Seachange, the Hauraki Gulf Forum-led project to develop a comprehensive management plan for the gulf. There have been preliminary meetings with DoC and the Auckland Council; they hope iwi will become involved in the islands' long-term management.

It's early days on what form protection should take. They've seen the fate of marine reserve proposals on nearby Waiheke and Great Barrier and see merit in more flexible fisheries management tools. They are convinced of the need to ban dredges and set nets.

Longer-term, Sue believes an integrated management plan encompassing land and water would be ideal - it would be something of a first.

Dad taught us to open our eyes and look ... don't take everything.
Sue Neureuter

But the first steps are to gather scientific evidence - to support what they have observed and give a basis for action - and to bring interest groups on board. Ecologists have long visited these islands for research; updated surveys should confirm what the family already knows.

They are poking their heads above the tree-line very hesitantly. They know some will snipe: "They just want it all for themselves."

Far from it. The family see themselves as custodians for future generations. Any restrictions introduced to help marine life to recover would also apply to them.

It means interrupting their summer idyll to host scientists and interest groups. Botanist Ewen Cameron has been out; Sanford chief executive Volker Kuntzsch paid a visit; recreational fishing groups are interested.

Bird experts Chris Gaskin and Karen Baird are due; a marine survey is to come. Ecologist Jo Ritchie will work up a restoration plan for the land, which should give a basis for further action.

The Neureuters are neither rich nor poor: Rod runs a Pacific islands exporting business from home; Sue and Zoe have a landscaping business on the Coromandel Peninsula. They grew up in West Auckland, acutely aware of the health of Whau Creek compared with out here. They are very conscious of their good fortune in inheriting a group of islands and would never sell.

The original family bach still stands on Otata Island. Photo / Michael Craig
The original family bach still stands on Otata Island. Photo / Michael Craig

They are speaking out because of the scale of the decline and the short-sightedness they continue to see.

They want future generations to be able to come to these waters to fish and dive; to enjoy the beauty above and below the surface. With Auckland's population on course to double between 2010 and 2050, unless action is taken now there will be nothing left to see, Sharon says.

"It's just become glaringly obvious over the years that there's a major decline in the gulf ecosystem itself," Rod says. "But, apart from Rangitoto, the Noises are probably the most unmodified islands in the gulf. There are more species here than in the inner gulf so it's worth protecting what's left."

"Dad taught us to open our eyes and look," Sue says. "Take some but don't take everything. There's a balance but that balance is being eroded because of the size of Auckland."

- NZ Herald

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