Auckland’s big blue backyard is being “pummelled” by human pressure, another damning stocktake shows, prompting more calls by environment groups to ban bottom trawling outright in the Hauraki Gulf.
In the same week Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced a raft of new protections for the marine park, the Hauraki Gulf Forum’s latest report showed many of its fragile ecosystems were still struggling.
The gulf’s crayfish population was now regarded as “functionally extinct” in heavily fished areas, while kina barrens had expanded to cover about a third of subtidal reefs, due to a lack of large predators.
There’d also been a universal decline in the density of harvestable cockles - and mass mortalities of fish, shellfish and seabirds were likely to become increasingly common with climate change.
An assessment of the gulf’s fish stocks – albeit with data gaps – showed some fish species like snapper and tarakihi needed rebuilding, while others like kahawai, trevally, kingfish, john dory and gurnard were fluctuating around “target levels” for fisheries management.
While there’d been about 27 per cent fewer bottom trawls and 21 per cent Danish seines – both fishing practices that disturbed the seabed – since the last stocktake in 2020, there’d been a near 70 per cent jump in the number of eagle rays being landed by commercial fishers.
Elsewhere in the report, fishing-related fatalities of two key seabirds - black petrels and flesh-footed shearwaters – had risen slightly, with the former being accidentally killed and captured at rates unlikely to be sustainable.
The new data also showed snapper were being landed at the same rate as three years ago, but landings of blue mackerel – the other most-caught species in the gulf – had dropped off by nearly a quarter.
All the while, pressure on the gulf had been coming elsewhere in the form of thousands of new seaside homes – and thousands of tonnes of nitrogen from fertiliser and livestock effluent flowing in from the Hauraki Plains each year.
“The Hauraki Gulf continues to be pummelled by our actions on land and at sea, plus the spread of new invasive species and increasing impacts from climate change,” forum co-chair Toby Adams said.
“This report paints a grim picture of the current health of the 14,000sq km blue backyard of the Auckland and Waikato regions – home to around two million people.”
Adams said the report described seabirds struggling to feed their young, the near loss of the last scallop beds, rampant kina devouring our kelp, and the rise in milky-flesh snapper, “pointing to continued ecological collapse”.
The forum’s tangata whenua co-chair, Nicola MacDonald, said there were some stories of hope to speak of, too, such as restoration efforts by mana whenua and communities, the planting of waterways.
“Furthermore, for the first time in over 100 years, the gulf is finally free from the most destructive form of fishing – scallop dredging – after a gulf-wide temporary closure by the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries,” she said.
“That needs to become permanent.”
Earlier this week, the Government announced new restrictions on bottom trawling, along with a tripling of the area currently under protection from six to 18 per cent.
That involved extending the Cape Rodney-Okakari Pt and Whanganui A Hei marine reserves, and creating 12 new “high protection areas” and five new “seafloor protection areas”.
While environment groups largely welcomed the new measures, expected to come into law with the passing of a bill next year, calls remained to ban bottom trawling outright in the gulf – something Hipkins said wasn’t off the table.
On the back of the latest report, Greenpeace this morning repeated that cry.
“Bottom trawling is the most harmful and destructive form of fishing used in the Hauraki Gulf and should be outlawed from the entire Marine Park to give its fragile ecosystem a chance to start recovering,” the group’s programme director Niamh O’Flynn said.
Alongside the likes of Forest and Bird, WWF NZ and recreational fishers’ lobby Legasea, more than 36,000 people had backed the call, and in April, hundreds showed up on the water and at Auckland’s Mission Bay Beach to show their support.
Meanwhile, Adams pointed to new assessments that put the gulf’s value to Kiwis in numbers.
“Our recently released natural capital valuation showed that the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, even its current poor health, is worth over $100 billion to this country as a natural capital asset,” he said.
“This is too big to let fail. We must do everything we can to protect and restore this taonga.”