FISH FOREVER'S proposal to establish two no-take marine reserves in the Bay of Islands is hardly a kneejerk reaction, however pressing the crisis might be. The organisation, which boasts an impressive mix of passion for restoring, if only to a modest degree, what was once magnificent marine environment with expertise in marine ecology, devoted five years to research and consultation before releasing its proposal for public comment last week, and is hopeful that sufficient support will be forthcoming to warrant putting a formal proposal to the Director-General of Conservation within the next couple of months.

Support will not be universal, however. Dover Samuels warned the organisation last week that it needed to make the process as inclusive as possible if it wished to succeed, and given its track record over the last five years that's probably a given. But success is crucial. If this proposal fails, the crisis that currently faces the Far North's marine environment will worsen, perhaps beyond the point of no return.

Indeed, the proposal to protect just 6.6 per cent of the inner Bay of Islands from any sort of fishing is just a start to addressing the damage done by generations of open slather. Fish Forever clearly believes that that damage, most spectacularly manifested in the form of kina barrens, can be repaired, but at best that will only be on a small scale. The proposal needs to succeed, quickly, and then the desire to protect important marine habitat needs to spread, around the Bay of Islands and further afield.

One of the problems that must be overcome is what has been described as the 'sliding baseline,' or generational amnesia. Wikipedia describes a sliding baseline as one used to describe the way significant changes to a system are measured against previous baselines, which themselves may represent significant changes from the original status of the system. Simply put, in terms of fisheries that means that fishery biologists tend to consider what they saw at the beginning of their careers as the baseline.


Even more simply put, Fish Forever says it means our childhood memories differ from those of our parents and grandparents. Children of today think the world they inhabit is normal, the way things have always been. Their parents and grandparents know better, but once thought the same way.

The damage has been done over a relatively short time, stemming no doubt from the perception that fish and shellfish were so abundant that they could sustain unlimited exploitation. Whatever today's children might believe, there are no grounds at all for their parents and grandparents to continue subscribing to that theory.

It's only a couple of generations ago that 90 Mile Beach yielded all the snapper and trevally that anyone could have wished for. Fishermen didn't even have to get wet - the writer recalls watching surfcasters wearing short gumboots; if wetsuits had been invented they weren't worn.

It's only a couple of generations since Waipapakauri was home to a toheroa canning factory, and the shellfish were harvested by the tonne. Now, when toheroa make a fleeting appearance, they are little bigger than tuatua, and illegal recreational taking soon wipes them out.

A couple of generations ago Ahipara supported a substantial commercial crayfishing industry. It only lasted a couple of seasons, but before it was over the crayfishers were selling sugar bags of undersized specimens to anyone who had a few dollars in their pocket.

Around 30 years ago the writer spent an afternoon flying over Great Exhibition Bay aboard a fishing company's spotter plane. The pilot recorded the positions of numerous huge schools of trevally, easily seen from a distance as a brown stain on the water. The fish in the centre of the schools were breaking the surface, while others shelved down around them. The pilot gave the schools' positions to the boats, and by the end of the day tonnes of trevally had been taken. They were turned into bait for fishermen who were then significantly less likely to catch a trevally.

Far Northerners might once have been excused for thinking the fish and shellfish that were so bountiful would never run out, but we cannot conceivably believe that now. And we can't even blame population growth for what we've done. Certainly more people live and fish in the Far North than was the case 50 years ago, and fishing techniques have become ever more sophisticated, but the damage we have done has more to do with ignorance and greed than it does with need.

Remember the furore generated by the reduction of the daily snapper limit bag in Snapper 1? Seven snapper per person is a pretty good feed, and the minimum specimen size is still a very small fish, but some fishers were outraged. It would not be surprising if the same reaction was seen in the Bay of Islands now that Fish Forever has unveiled its proposal. One charter operator has already rejected the proposal, seemingly on the basis that, contrary to what Fish Forever and others claim, burgeoning fish populations do not spill out of reserves and so become fair game.

One suspects he is wrong. It makes sense that if a snapper population, for example, explodes within the confines of a reserve, some of those fish will, in time, move outside the boundaries. But even if they don't, that is no argument against the establishment of reserves.

The reality is that if nothing is done - and according to Fish Forever that's not an option - there will soon be no fish to catch. The damage that has been done to the marine environment, damage that seems to be undisputed, will not repair itself with smaller daily bag limits and increased minimum sizes. The case made by Fish Forever is compelling - much of the marine environment within the Bay of Islands has lost its ability to replace the fish that are being taken. If someone can explain the logic of doing nothing until there is no point doing anything they are welcome to do so.

And this is not just a Bay of Islands issue. Hopefully keen interest will be taken by those who have talked, but seemingly made little progress, about protecting parts of Doubtless Bay. Those who recognise the importance of the Far North's harbours as fish breeding grounds should also be watching; even those who believe commercial fishing is still permitted too close to the shore on the west coast, particularly 90 Mile Beach, although the environment there might have been damaged beyond repair.

Given that when pair trawling began there the boats would be followed a couple of tides later by huge drifts of seaweed washing on to the beach, to the point where driving sometimes became impossible, it might well be that the marine environment beyond the breakers has become a desert, and will remain one. It's hardly surprising that surfcasting on 90 Mile Beach is not as rewarding as it once was, and all for cheap fish and chips, a reliable supply of bait at the local gas station and some overseas earnings.

Anyone who does not believe that Far North fish are a finite resource is deluding themselves, and while the bounty once provided by the sea will never be seen again, if something isn't done now there will soon be no bounty at all. All power to Fish Forever then. May it succeed in persuading others that time is of the essence, and may others take up the cause it has launched.