The Houhora Riding Settlers' and Ratepayers' Association has launched another bid to spare Houhora Harbour from continued over-exploitation, calling on Prime Industries Minister Nathan Guy to give it official recreational status.
Association secretary Eric Wagener said he had been involved with the organisation since the early 1960s, and over that period it had made numerous submissions on the coastal and marine environment, ranging from concerns over illegal pair trawling to marine and coastal plans, fish stock surveys, and the sustainability of the fin fish and shell fish industries.
He could go back through more than 60 years of files to show consistent grave concerns over declining fish stocks, exploitation, and the need to keep small safe harbours free from commercial activity.
"We could go back much further than this to when evidence of the importance to local Maori of the harbour fishery was established through excavations carried out by Auckland University, which showed that the iwi living in the pa on Mt Camel relied heavily on shellfish, fin fish, seals and other marine life to exist," he said.
"With the advent of European settlement came a reliance in part by them on the same marine resource. There are historical pictures from the Northward collection showing the abundance of marine life in this harbour. Sadly that is all now very much past history, and it is highly unlikely that anyone now could rely on the harbour for regular sustenance."
Over a period of almost 70 years complaints had been made to the government, and its agents, regarding illegal activities such as pair trawlers stringing nets across the harbour, the setting of longlines and commercial drag netting destroying the fishery. Those complaints had largely been ignored.
"The facts are that the association has been proved right," Mr Wagener added.
"At one time, as little as 10 years ago, many longline fishermen were working successfully out of this harbour. The fish stocks are now so depleted that few are still working."
In the past there had been a "gentleman's agreement" between residents and the local commercial fishermen that the harbour was off-limits to commercial exploitation. That was no longer the case, commercial interests responding to the exploitation of other areas to unsustainable levels by continuing to put pressure on the harbour.
The association was well aware of the government's view regarding the economic value of Northland's marine environment, but argued that it should not be exploited at the expense of residents' interests or well-being.
The Far North District Council's Pukenui-Houhora community plan, compiled in 2007, included the community's expectations regarding the harbour. Extensive public consultation influenced a number of clauses, including:
That further aquaculture development be contingent upon formal studies of the ecological impact of existing ventures, and take account of adverse effects of such developments. There were strong concerns about the impact on the harbour ecology of existing aquaculture development, which appeared to offer relatively little benefit to the local economy.
Estimates of the amount of fine organically-enriched sediment from the existing oyster farm are 47 to 73 tonnes per day; there are anecdotal reports of once sandy areas being now thigh-deep in mud.
There were concerns that the Northland Regional Council would have conflicting interests in that it was likely to be a major beneficiary from the expansion of aquaculture, while being required to regulate it. There was a strong sense that NRC staff were deaf to local concerns. It appeared that the NRC had never formally monitored aquaculture activities within the harbour to ensure that the effects were known and sustainability achieved.
Marine farming should not be permitted within the harbour.
In September 2011 a group of Houhora residents had presented a petition signed not only by locals but also by others from well outside the immediate area asking that commercial fishing be banned within the harbour, and that it be given recreational status. The petition was presented to then Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley, who acknowledged public concern but was "less than helpful" in suggesting government action to even examine the validity of the request.
"At the present time Houhora Harbour is once again being drag-netted by commercial fishermen who have already cleaned out other areas," Mr Wagener added.
"Political governance is for the good of the people, not those elected to represent. Those elected are chosen to champion the causes of those who elect them. Past replies have relied on governmental agency standard responses and vested interests in maintaining current policy unchanged ...
"On a number of occasions public submissions have been answered by the threat that government agencies would close the harbour to all fishing, creating a harbour marine park rather than give this harbour recreational status. This stance is simply not acceptable from people who are employed or elected to carry out public aspirations.
"Generations of children, from the earliest times of habitation, have learned to fish and use the harbour to provide for self and family. The actions of this generation will ensure that, with protection, the harbour will continue to fulfil this role.
"We, along with concerned residents and iwi, once again request that commercial fin fishing be banned from Houhora Harbour, and, as requested by all sectors of the community over many years, that it be given recreational fishing status only, regardless of current fisheries policy that has had and is having a detrimental effect on the harbour."