A proposal to protect at least 20 per cent of the 1.2 million hectare Hauraki Gulf Marine Park has sparked debate from all sides. In a two-part series Michael Neilson takes a look at worrying state of Auckland's big, blue backyard, and plans to restore it. Today: how to save the gulf.
A much-vaunted plan to turn around the "desperate" state of the Hauraki Gulf is back on the table with a Government advisory committee soon to be unveiled and actions expected by next year.
The Sea Change Plan, developed over four years by a cross-sector group, was unveiled in 2016 and aimed to create a marine spatial plan to recommend what activities should take place and where in the 1.2 million hectare Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
The plan - the first of its kind in New Zealand - brought together 181 proposals to help stem the flow of sediment and other pollutants into the gulf, ease pressures on wildlife, fish stocks and kaimoana, and restore the health of crucial ecosystems.
Estimates suggest the gulf today supports less than 45 per cent of the fish "biomass" that it did in 1925, including snapper rates cut by 80 per cent, and crayfish numbers slashed to about 20 per cent of their 1945 levels.
The plan had floundered over the past three years though, with the Hauraki Gulf Forum last year warning the effort would "probably fail" because it wasn't enforceable and was "probably unfundable, at least under present arrangements", given the cost involved in implementing it.
In November last year, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage and Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash offered new hope for the plan, establishing a ministerial advisory committee tasked with helping to implement it.
Sage told the Herald that since then the agencies had been consulting with tāngata whenua affected by the proposals, councils and other parties.
They were now deciding the make up of the advisory committee, including seven to nine members and a tāngata whenua co-chair, with the aim for a first meeting in July and 12 months for it to make recommendations to the Government.
"In Stuart Nash and myself, there are two ministers absolutely committed to restoring the health of the gulf."
While she could not speak for the previous Government, Sage said delays had been down to the scope of the recommendations, lack of statutory frameworks and making sure they did not interfere with any Treaty negotiations in the area.
"It is a very ambitious plan. I am not sure why the former Government did not take action, but it is the first marine spatial plan, and as such we don't have legislation in place to implement it."
What's in the plan?
The plan laid out steps to "phase out" bottom-contact fishing methods such as trawling, Danish seining, set netting and dredging, review the way fish stocks were managed, create 13 new marine protected areas (MPAs) and extend two existing ones.
Those areas would include no-take areas nested within "larger, special management areas with fisheries management objectives".
The suggested sites of the new MPAs were at the Mokohinau Islands, Little Barrier (Hauturu) Island, Cape Colville, Alderman (Ruamaahua) Islands, Mercury (Ahuahu) Islands, Slipper (Whakahau) Island, Whangateau Harbour, Kawau Islands, Tiritiri Matangi Islands, Noises Islands, Rangitoto and Motutapu, the Firth of Thames and the Motukawao Group.
Two existing marine reserves at Hahei (Te Whanganui a Hei Marine Reserve), Coromandel region and Leigh (Cape Rodney - Okakari Pt Marine Reserve), north of Auckland, were recommended for extensions.
At present there were six marine reserves - covering 0.3 per cent of the gulf - where no habitat disturbance or removal of marine life was allowed in the gulf, and five MPAs where no bottom-contact fishing was allowed.
The plan recommended new local "Ahu Moana" marine areas, from the mean high-water mark to a kilometre offshore, which would allow mana whenua and local communities to work together to manage their coastal area using existing statutory rights and practices.
Sage said the Government's responsibilities would involve areas like marine reserves and fishing regulations, while sediment control and water quality fell to regional councils.
In spite of delays in implementing the plan, the advisory Hauraki Gulf Forum this month announced ambitions to have 20 per cent of the gulf protected, and restore 1000sq km of reef and shellfish beds.
Sage said she was supportive of that ambition and those proposals would be covered by the Sea Change advisory committee, along with the plan's other proposals for protected areas, rāhui, customary fishing and phasing out certain fishing methods.
"Currently only 0.3 per cent is in marine reserves, so it would be quite a lot to take it to 20 per cent, and even 30 per cent as some recommended," Sage said.
"Those recommendations for marine reserves in the Sea Change plan are a good place to start, but there was no public process, so that will be a first step following the advisory committee process."
Auckland Council environment and community committee chair Penny Hulse, who also chairs the council's Sea Change group, said the council had supported the plan since day one.
"We have taken the key themes from the plan, and looked at where the council's work fits in with it."
Key areas included improving the stormwater and wastewater networks, as part of its targeted rate to raise $452 million over 10 years, working with developers to stop sediment and run-off, and preventing rubbish entering waterways.
"For Aucklanders, the gulf is our home, a place we love," Hulse said.
"If we want our grandchildren to have the same experiences we had, we need to think of everything we do on land and how it impacts the gulf."
Hulse said it was important they were on the same page as central Government regarding the plan's goals, alongside managing Auckland's growth.
"We want to make development less complicated, but we cannot remove the ability to protect fragile environments."
Deputy Auditor-General Greg Schollum said in a report last year that key agencies involved in developing the plan – which included the Auckland Council, the Waikato Regional Council, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation – weren't as involved as they could have been.
There also needed to be more communication and discussion of the plan with stakeholders as it neared completion, and with the community after.
The project's success would depend on how its recommendations were incorporated into local and central Government's decision-making, and working together with affected stakeholder groups, he said.
Hauraki District mayor and former forum chair John Tregidga said the lack of progress since the plan was launched had been "really disappointing".
"There has been a lot of talk and not much action. The central Government really needs to step up."
Tregidga said we were running out of time to save the gulf.
"I don't think the general public, and even people that use the gulf, appreciate we are getting to a really desperate stage."
Tregidga said some recommendations, such as phasing out bottom trawling and recreational users dredging for scallops, needed to be acted on immediately.
Some of the most critical issues to address were also "legacy issues" involving sediment and nitrates coming out of the Firth of Thames, and stormwater and wastewater from Auckland, Tregidga said.
Current forum chair John Meeuwsen said the Sea Change plan was "absolutely" something the forum wanted to see come into action, but it was up to the Government to take it on board.
Forest and Bird marine advocate Anton van Helden said the environmental organisation wanted to see the Sea Change plan finally implemented, and was pushing for at least 30 per cent of the gulf to be marine reserves.
"This is one of the most important areas of biodiversity in New Zealand, but at present just 0.28 per cent is fully protected."
Van Helden said internationally it was regarded at least 30 per cent of an area with representative habitat, alongside other measures of protection, was required not only to restore biodiversity but to ensure sustainable fishing into the future.
Since the plan had been launched various ideas had been picked up, including the Auckland Council's actions, but it had been "piecemeal", van Helden said.
"Central Government needs to endorse the package as a whole and drive it,"
Community action key to turning situation around
For forum deputy chair and tāngata whenua representative Moana Tamaariki-Pohe community action is essential to turning the gulf situation around.
Pollution and fishing pressures had seen most shellfish disappear from her hapū Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei's kāpata kai at Okahu Bay.
The hapū had begun reseeding mussels off the wharf, and Tamaariki-Pohe said other iwi, hapū and community groups around the gulf were taking on similar projects.
The Mussel Reef Restoration Trust, established in 2012, had been working to re-establish mussel reefs throughout the gulf. At Mahurangi Harbour they installed five living fish nurseries with more than 50 tonnes of mussels on the seabed, and had since placed more than 100 tonnes at various locations across the gulf.
Mussels once covered some 500sq km of the Hauraki Gulf and Firth of Thames before they were dredged. It was estimated they could filter the water of the firth in a day.
"The water then would have been crystal clear," trust chair John Laurence said.
Pilot mussel beds had shown baby snapper, koheru, goatfish, spotties and even squid seen using the beds. Research showed such areas attracted 10 times the amount of fish as areas of the gulf without.
"Placing mussels on the seafloor is like planting trees to create a forest, in providing habitat and food sources, plus they are amazing at filtering out sediment. Each mussel can filter a bathtub of water a day."
The Sustainable Business network had also this year launched a three-year programme, through which it would work with businesses to reduce marine pollution, cut transport pollution and boost restoration of waterways.
Tamaariki-Pohe said such projects would not only rejuvenate the health of the gulf, but reconnect people.
"We are only part of the ecosystem. When we stop putting ourselves above the environment, we will get change."