Anton Van Heldon: Govt failing in duty to marine life

Plan to create better chances for protection appears to have been scuppered for greater mineral exploitation.
Many whales around New Zealand spend most of their lives in areas we have not been able to preserve. Photo / Malcolm Francis
Many whales around New Zealand spend most of their lives in areas we have not been able to preserve. Photo / Malcolm Francis

The Government's announcement last year that it intends to create a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary through special legislation is a great start towards providing protection for marine life within our broader ocean territory.

Surprisingly, though, newly proposed marine protection legislation will not provide for any protection in the rest of our huge Exclusive Economic Zone.

Since 2008, the Government has been promising to update ocean legislation to better protect our unique marine biodiversity, particularly within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

To do this they proposed to extend our ability to establish marine protection from the inshore territorial sea, which makes up just 5 per cent of our ocean space, to our EEZ, which accounts for the other 95 per cent.

A large number of our marine species are found only in the deeper waters of our EEZ, and many of those species that are common closer to shore in our territorial sea, such as blue whales, killer whales, white sharks, and albatrosses, actually spend most of their lives in the wider ocean.

The Government's stated aim was to create legislation that would protect our marine biodiversity by establishing a comprehensive network of marine protected areas that would be representative of New Zealand's diverse marine habitats and ecosystems.

In January this year, they released their much anticipated Marine Protected Areas Act discussion document. But instead of proposing ways to include our EEZ, they have excluded it altogether.

So apart from the proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary that will protect 16 per cent of the zone around our sub-tropical Kermadec Islands, there will be no process for providing protection in the rest of the zone off the mainland of New Zealand, the Chathams, or in our sub-Antarctic region.

Papers released under the Official Information Act show that this radical and baffling change occurred only in the last six months.

One reason given for not being able to provide for protection in the wider EEZ is a lack of detailed knowledge about the area. But decades of research has actually provided a lot of knowledge about the different ecosystems and habitats in our zone.

While it is always useful to know more, we do have enough information to do a reasonable job of establishing a comprehensive and representative network of protected areas.

Nevertheless it is interesting to note that the apparent "lack of knowledge" has not stopped the Government from offering some 16 per cent of our EEZ for exploitation in block offers to the oil, gas and minerals industries.

The discussion document suggests that even within our inshore territorial seas, no protection will be contemplated in areas that are either on offer, proposed or under permit to the oil, gas and minerals industry.

It seems that the radical shift away from allowing protection in the EEZ was done to make it easier for those who want to exploit our ocean environment.

The removal of the zone from the marine protection legislation proposal occurred as a result of a meeting in the middle of 2015 of the Cabinet Economic Growth and Infrastructure Committee which decided to "remove any reference to the Exclusive Economic Zone and replace the term with 'territorial seas' ".

Our rights as a nation to manage and exploit resources in our zone comes from the international agreement called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This law also unambiguously stipulates that we have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment, and that the rights to allow exploitation come with the duty to protect and preserve it.

Forest & Bird will be making a strong submission on the discussion document that New Zealand must fulfil these international obligations, and therefore the proposed Marine Protected Areas Act must allow marine protected areas to be created in all our ocean space, particularly the EEZ. You have until March 11 to make a submission to the Government on this discussion document.

Anton Van Helden is marine advocate for Forest & Bird.

- NZ Herald

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