Brian Rudman
Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Hand-wringing won't cure marine park's sickness

The Hauraki Gulf catchment is home to 1 million people and 410,000 cows. Photo / Christine Cornege
The Hauraki Gulf catchment is home to 1 million people and 410,000 cows. Photo / Christine Cornege

The toothless tiger set up a decade ago to agonise over the future of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park meets today for another session of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing.

Top of the agenda is the State of the Environment Report 2011, the latest in an annual series of Domesday Books, recording the steady decline in the health and well-being of Auckland's priceless watery playground.

The Hauraki Gulf Forum is made up of representatives of government departments and local councils and tribal groups bordering the gulf, and about all it can do, by law, is agonise.

Under the 2000 act establishing what proud Conservation Minister Sandra Lee called our first "national park of the sea", the forum's powers were limited to writing and receiving reports and to "monitor," "facilitate" and "encourage".

Today's 198-page "draft" report, like its predecessors, struggles from a lack of basic research into the workings of the gulf, admitting to "fundamental gaps in our understanding ..." which, perhaps, is why the authors have labelled it "not to be cited" on each page.

I'm happy to oblige, because little seems to have changed from earlier reports that I have quoted. The basic problem for the Hauraki Gulf, as the 2008 report noted, is that the catchment is home to one million people and 410,000 cows.

We humans are to blame for unmeasured amounts of silt from land developments and heavy metals from run-off from urban streets and metal roofs pouring into our poorly flushing harbours. As for the cows of the Hauraki Plains, for them the gulf is the local long-drop. They contribute "a vast amount of nitrogen" to flow into the Firth of Thames each year.

The 2008 report concluded: "Effective, integrated management of the gulf requires first and foremost a much better approach to understanding the strategic picture of the gulf and that means making sure we have the best possible understanding of what is happening".

Today's report suggests nothing has been done since then to provide the funds to do the research so this strategic picture can be assembled.

Not that anyone is suggesting by this that the picture is not bad and getting worse. It's just that without an accurate and up-to-date set of statistics, there is no way of measuring rates of decline - or of designing ways to halt, and hopefully reverse, the on-going decay of the gulf environment.

In 2009, Environment Waikato soil scientist Dr Peter Singleton warned the forum that it was not just the Waikato cows, who en masse, produce the same amount of faecal bacteria as 15 million humans, which were a concern. It was also the explosion in the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers on their pastures. Since 1990, nitrogen use on Waikato farms had increased five-fold.

In the five years to 2009, nitrogen levels in leachates into the gulf catchment had increased 25 per cent.

Dr Singleton added there was a 20- to 30-year delay in nitrates leaching through the ground to the sea and warned of the possibility of a 100sq km oxygen-starved, lifeless anoxic zone stretching out into the gulf.

Despite these regular warnings, all we seem to do is continue sitting around twiddling our thumbs. Hopefully the new Auckland Council, under whose wing the forum now seems to live, will inject some urgency into the situation.

As former Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee, a member of the forum, has often pointed out, first we have to take the marine park seriously. Created in 2000, it's yet to have an official opening.

As Mr Lee has argued, it also needs a ministerially appointed park board to ensure a strategy is not just designed and funded, but acted upon also. It would also work alongside the Auckland Council and Department of Conservation to promote it.

In 1967, the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park was created as a sort of twin to the national parks, the thrust being to protect the native fauna and flora from human invaders. The marine park legislation of 2000 broadened the focus to embracing the "inter-relationship between the Hauraki Gulf, its islands and catchments and the ability of that inter-relationship to sustain the life-supporting capacity of the environment".

Eleven years on and where are we? Discussing another report on the decline of the gulf environment.

- NZ Herald

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