Whether known as Hawke Bay, Tangitu or the realm of Tangaroa, a love of the sea unites the people of Hawke's Bay.

What might surprise you is that over one-third of the Hawke's Bay region is "under water" - that is the 770,000ha of coastal marine area between the high water springs mark and the 12-nautical-mile limit. The Regional Council has a statutory responsibility to sustainably manage this area, alongside the 1.4 million hectares of dry land. The Regional Council recently received a report commissioned by it in conjunction with the Ministry for Primary Industries and Ngati Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated. The Hawke's Bay Marine Information: Review and Research Strategy report has been described as a "stepping stone" to identify key knowledge gaps. The idea is that only through a better understanding of the coastal environment can we identify and progress the most effective policy for its protection and restoration.

Regional Council candidate Neil Kirton has been campaigning for the establishment of a national oceans research institute in Hawke's Bay, representing an opportunity to take a leadership role in the governance of New Zealand's oceans.

The announcement of Government funding towards a marine science facility at the National Aquarium is fantastic news in that respect. The council and Napier MP Stuart Nash are also promoting a multi-agency collaborative approach to developing policy.

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I agree that a science based, co-ordinated approach is vital, for while commercial and recreational fishers may bemoan dwindling stocks of preferred species such as gurnard and snapper, particularly over the past decade, it can be too easy to simply point the finger.

Mr Nash would no doubt have significant support for his proposed 50m (depth) moratorium on commercial fishing and the desirability of this as an interim measure is understandable. Longer term, though, setting blanket restrictions on commercial fishing in certain areas would harm the businesses and employees that depend on access to the fishery (as quota holders) but may not tackle the main causes of the problem.

What leaps off the page in reading the Hawke's Bay Marine Information report is that sedimentation is at the very forefront of threats to coastal habitats within Hawke's Bay. Sedimentation rates increased greatly following European conversion of native scrub and forest into pasture. The report records a number of "consistent themes" from interviews with stakeholder groups, identifying a significant decline in water quality (predominantly underwater visibility region-wide since the mid-1970s), and a general perception of increased sedimentation throughout rivers and estuarine systems.

If there is one issue that underscores the need for integrated management in protecting our environment, this is it. What we do on land matters, in our rivers and in the sea. This point also highlights why measures such as Change 6 to the Regional Plan setting stock fencing requirements that can significantly reduce sediment and nutrient runoff are so important.

At present, the focus of the Regional Coastal Plan is on regulating structures and activities that may have an effect on the seabed or coastline. On its own, this will not reverse the bigger problems surrounding deteriorating marine habitats and declining fish stocks. The council can do much better than simply tell its ratepayers what not to do. It needs to enable positive outcomes. As well as the initiatives referred to earlier, taking a lead on a community- driven response to this type of issue can pay real dividends.

Raglan Harbour provides a classic case study of how a constructive integrated management approach involving fencing and riparian planting can dramatically improve coastal water quality.

To summarise, a smart policy response demands a robust understanding of the science. This does not mean putting off doing anything to protect or restore our precious and cherished coastal environment. A factually based, policy-driven approach will ultimately deliver the best outcomes in the shortest timeframe.

- Martin Williams is a Napier-based lawyer specialising in environmental law who is standing for the Hawke's Bay Regional Council in this year's local body elections in October.

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- Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: editor@hbtoday.co.nz