The Government has ignored the fishing potential of the area surrounding the Kermadec Islands and has listened to a foreign environmental group to "summarily dismiss" hard-won iwi fishing rights, the Maori fisheries trust says.

Maori fisheries trust Te Ohu Kaimoana has filed proceedings against the Government in the Wellington High Court because the proposed 620,000 sq km no-take zone northeast of New Zealand would "extinguish" customary and commercial fishing rights.

In a speech delivered to open the Maori Fisheries Conference this morning, spokesman Jamie Tuuta made a passionate case against the Kermadec sanctuary.

"Recognition of Maori fishing rights were hard won by Maori leaders, most of whom are not with us today...the Maori fisheries settlement was their legacy," Mr Tuuta said.


"We owe it to them to protect what they fought for. We owe it to our future generations of Maori to do that.

"An analogy today would be if someone owned a vacant lot in central Auckland, left unused and not built on, and the Government came along and said, 'you haven't used it, so we're taking it for the Auckland housing crisis.'"

The Government says it will push ahead with the creation of New Zealand's biggest marine sanctuary around the Kermadec Islands despite the legal challenge by iwi who say it breaches their right to fish in the region.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has said he would not be deterred by the legal challenge, and the ambition was to have the sanctuary in place on November 1. The minister said the trust's case was "weak" because Maori had not fished at the islands for a decade.

Today, Mr Tuuta said that view failed to recognise the development potential of the area, saying iwi would miss out on the rights to catch highly migratory tuna species during the four months of the year that they are in the Kermadec zone.

"Other species might be developed and commercially exploited in time...we are developing what the future fishery could look like for all iwi. I can tell you now, it looks like a lot more than $200,000 worth of fishing."

He hit out at the influence the United States environmental group the Pew Foundation had over the sanctuary proposal, saying "they almost wrote the Cabinet paper".

"We do not accept that any foreign NGO should dictate to our Government for the repudiation of inter-generational Maori rights to fisheries.

Te Ohu Kaimoana already had measures in place to protect marine life in the area surrounding the Kermadecs, Mr Tuuta said, and was open to discussion about changes, but did not accept outright prohibition.

"The Kermadec proposal is not as simple as the Government makes out. Maori have rights, the industry has rights. In this day and age, making policy on the hoof without the inclusion of rights-holders is short-term thinking."

The Government consulted with northern iwi Ngati Kuri and Te Aupouri on the sanctuary and has allocated three places on a governance board for Maori. But iwi say this does not go far enough, because a total of 58 tribes had interests in the fishery.

Around 20 tonnes of fish, mostly tuna, is caught within the boundaries of the proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary each year. The fishing take is worth around $250,000.

The proposed sanctuary covers 15 per cent of New Zealand's exclusive economic zone and would include 39 species of sea birds, 35 species of whales and dolphins, three species of endangered turtles, and 150 species of fish.