The scientist who drove the establishment of New Zealand's first marine reserve has died.

Dr Bill Ballantine was a key player in the founding of the country's original "no take" marine reserve, created at Leigh, north of Auckland, in 1977.

Today, the reserve is one of the most popular diving spots in the country, renowned for the variety and abundance of its marine life.

"The Leigh Marine Reserve forms a lasting tribute to the dedication of Bill and his colleagues," said University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon.

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Dr Ballantine was the first and longest-serving director of the University of Auckland's Leigh Marine Laboratory.

Head of the university's Institute of Marine Science, Professor Simon Thrush, said New Zealand had lost a true conservation champion.

"We can all be grateful that Bill had the vision and the courage to fight as hard as he did to get greater protection for our marine environment, protection that has only proved more valuable as time has gone on," Professor Thrush said.

Associate Professor Mark Costello, also based at the institute, said Dr Ballantine was delighted with the recent announcement of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary at the Kermadec Islands northeast of New Zealand.

"Bill remained totally dedicated and engaged with marine conservation throughout his life.

"He was a great mentor and a dear friend to many colleagues and students here at Leigh and we will miss him greatly."

Just this year, he and Dr Costello co-authored a research paper which examined the global effort to protect the world's oceans from over-fishing and biodiversity loss and found that more needed to be done.

Dr Ballantine was a strong advocate of no-take reserves and he believed that only areas that imposed a ban on fishing had real conservation benefit.

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"He was a champion of our marine species and even in retirement, he never stopped campaigning for further protection of our marine environment," Dr Costello said.

Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith has also paid tribute to Dr Ballantine, who died aged 78.

"Bill was the father of marine conservation in New Zealand. Our 1971 Marine Reserves Act - an international first - was his brainchild, as was our first no-take reserve at Leigh," he said.

"He remained a forceful advocate for the protection of our marine environment and leaves behind a proud legacy.

"The first step that Bill persuaded us to take as a country 40 years ago has to be acknowledged as the seed for New Zealand's strong reputation today as a world leader in the responsible use and management of our ocean environment.

"It was therefore particularly special that Bill was able to attend the event last month marking the announcement of the new Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. The event also provided an opportunity to recognise Bill's invaluable contribution.

"My thoughts are with Bill's family and friends."