In a few short months, the Department of Conservation will undertake one of the most important operations in its history. In June, it will carry out aerial poison drops on Rangitoto and Motutapu islands to remove rats and, hopefully, all other exotic animal pests.

The two islands, although millions of years apart in terms of geologic age, are contiguous. This joined-at-the-hip double island comprising nearly 4000ha of diverse habitat is significantly bigger than New Zealand's most important wildlife sanctuary, the internationally famous Little Barrier Island - and is nearly 20 times bigger than the remarkably successful Tiritiri Matangi.

The benefits for conservation, education and tourism that such a pest-free wildlife sanctuary, stocked with native birds and reptiles, only a few minutes by fast ferry from the Auckland CBD, would bring are significant.

Rangitoto/Motutapu's position, size, significance and physical diversity (iconic forest-clad volcano and contrasting broad open pastures and beaches) make it the logical "headquarters" of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park and the ideal location for a future marine park visitor centre.

Moreover, the ecological restoration of Rangitoto/Motutapu provides a wonderful opportunity to breathe life into the promotion of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.

The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act was passed through Parliament in February 2000, but despite the cross-the-board support of all the major parties and the passionate Auckland boaties and conservationists who lobbied so energetically for it, nine years on there is not a lot to show - in terms of a park.

Why this should be is a puzzle. Perhaps the problem lies with the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act itself.

Although the legislation can be viewed as progressive, its weakness is that it's something of an all-things-to-everyone omnibus. It is made up of three quite separate, almost watertight sections.

Part 1 establishes the Hauraki Gulf and its catchments as a sort of special area in terms of Resource Management Act planning and consents. Part 2 formalises the pre-existing Hauraki Gulf Forum.

And, finally, Part 3 establishes and defines the marine park itself.

Part 1 is legally interesting because sections 7 and 8 comprise the first and, until quite recently, the only National Policy Statement promulgated under s.55 of the Resource Management Act (1991). And these sections are also to be treated as a NZ Coastal Policy Statement.

Unhappily, nine years since the act was passed, most of the local authorities have still not fully complied with the act's requirements, namely to amend their plans to include the National Policy Statement/NZ Coastal Policy Statement specialness of the Gulf in their planning documents and resource consent processes.

Truth be told, there was never a lot of enthusiasm from council bureaucrats, planners and lawyers for this legislation, which sets out to make the Hauraki Gulf a special case under RMA. But the law is the law and the failure of the responsible authorities to comply with the letter, let alone the spirit, of the act raises the question of "who regulates the regulators".

Many people frustrated about the lack of performance of the Marine Park Act (and the invisibility of the park) point to the Hauraki Gulf Forum, made up of local authority politicians, government departments and Iwi representatives, in the mistaken belief that the forum is responsible for the marine park.

It is not. The forum predates the park legislation and its role and responsibilities are set out in the act. These are essentially integrating existing agency roles in managing and monitoring the environment of the Hauraki Gulf and catchments, including the publication of a regular state of the environment report.

Though the act is silent about the specifics of park governance per se, responsibility for managing the marine park - which comprises all the Department of Conservation Islands, the seabed and the sea itself - lies with central government (the Department of Conservation).

While the general foot-dragging by the councils in regard to Part 1 is lamentable, it's a secondary issue. What the original recreational boating and conservation campaigners campaigned for from the late 1980s was a marine park in the Hauraki Gulf - a park of national status.

It needs to be borne in mind that there are no national parks within 400km or so of the Auckland region. And it is this fact that obviously motivated National in its election pledge to investigate creating two national parks in the north, including the already protected and well-managed ARC Waitakere Ranges regional park.

However, when it comes to suitable candidates for national park status, there is something much more appropriate - the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. The park covers nearly 14,000sq km of ocean, extending across the Auckland and Waikato regions, and includes literally hundreds of islands large and small. This is clearly of national, if not international, importance.

However, nearly 20 years on since the idea of a marine park was first promoted and nine years since it became formally established in law, the park has never been officially opened and, to my knowledge, not a single sign has ever been erected. And in this era of ubiquitous brands and logos, there is none for the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park - there is not even a proper website.

It is hard to fathom why officialdom has never got its head around the enormous potential of the marine park - the potential economic benefits alone from tourism could be significant for Auckland and New Zealand.

The Prime Minister has indicated that tourism is something the Government intends to focus on and John Key has underscored that commitment by appointing himself Minister for Tourism.

The Department of Conservation, supported by a number of dedicated volunteer groups and thousands of volunteers, is doing a superb job managing and restoring the islands of the gulf.

But more is needed - notably the promotion and energetic "marketing" of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, especially internationally and, ideally, in concert with Tourism New Zealand and Tourism Auckland, ARC's Auckland Plus, Auckland City and private tourist operators (ferry companies especially). The ARC has made it clear to DoC that we are willing to help. This promotional work is something that is clearly not the core business of DoC, which anyway has always had budgetary constraints. But, obviously, it is essential that it be carried out in close co-operation with DoC.

I suggest a mechanism how this could happen. Under section 56 of the Conservation Act, the Minister of Conservation can appoint a special advisory committee to advise the minister on specific issues. The minister can regulate the procedures of that committee "as the minister thinks fit".

I suggest the Government appoints a special committee to advise the minister on promoting the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park and its purposes. This could work in a similar way to the present-day Conservation Authority and the Nature Heritage Fund and act as a sort of ginger group principally focused on ensuring the promotion and marketing of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.

The beauty of this is that it doesn't require another "layer of bureaucracy" and doesn't need legislation.

The advisory committee need only be small - perhaps five or six members made up of people with tourism and conservation expertise, including iwi representation.

It should be chaired by someone with acknowledged credibility and expertise in the Hauraki Gulf. There are people out there with those credentials - we should leave that to the minister.

Whatever - it's time we woke up to the unfulfilled potential of the Hauraki Gulf lying at Auckland's doorstep.

* Mike Lee is a Hauraki Gulf conservationist and chairman of the Auckland Regional Council.