Peter Hardstaff: Our chance to make a sea-change

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A Kermadecs ocean sanctuary would show that we're a global conservation player.

Our oceans are globally significant for the marine life they contain. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Our oceans are globally significant for the marine life they contain. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

As John Key does the rounds in New York this week, probably looking to promote New Zealand's bid to be on the United Nations Security Council, and Murray McCully attends the Our Oceans conference in Washington DC, now would seem to be a good time to reflect on New Zealand's international reputation when it comes to marine conservation.

New Zealand's oceans are undoubtedly important. Our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is the fifth largest in the world, but it's not just size that puts us on the world map.

Our oceans are globally significant for the marine life they contain, including species of birds like the yellow-eyed penguin and marine mammals like the Hector's and Maui's dolphins that live nowhere else on earth. So looking after our marine environment is a really big deal for New Zealand and the world.

With President Obama just announcing 2 million sq km of marine protection, the United States has set a new benchmark for global marine conservation leadership.

Presumably New Zealand was invited to attend the Our Oceans conference, focused on marine protection, as a result of our Government's claims to being a world leader on the ocean environment.

But scratch beneath the surface and the picture doesn't look quite so healthy.

While 9 per cent of our marine environment is available for trawl fishing and 12 per cent is subject to oil and gas permits, only half of 1 per cent has been set aside as marine protected areas.

The target to which our Government is committed is 10 per cent, and many experts believe we should aim for at least twice as much.

Size is another factor. Chile's largest marine reserve is 150,000 sq km while the UK's is 636,600 sq km. New Zealand's largest marine protected area is the existing Kermadecs Marine Reserve, which is just 7480 sq km.

As well as the quantity and size, the definition of what counts as a protected area also leaves something to be desired.

For example, "cable and pipeline zones" are counted as part of New Zealand's contribution to marine protected areas.

To his credit, Conservation Minister Nick Smith has pushed marine conservation up the political agenda in 2014 and is committed to establishing more marine reserves this year.

Marine protection for parts of the ocean around the sub-antarctic islands and a 5.1 sq km reserve south of Akaroa harbour have been announced, and there are more to follow. However, while welcome, these areas are relatively small. At the current rate of implementation it will take more than 800 years to achieve the international target.

Yet our Government could do something really significant for conservation: by committing to establishing a 620,000 sq km Kermadecs ocean sanctuary in our own EEZ, which would be one of the world's largest no-take marine protected areas. It is one of the last pristine ocean environments.

WWF believes that the Kermadecs Ocean Sanctuary would show the world that we're a global player and it would properly justify a seat for New Zealand at the top table of ocean governance. So come on Murray and John; how about it?

- NZ Herald

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