• Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University

The Kermadecs are our Galapagos. The Galapagos collects about US$150 million ($206m) a year from tourists. The Kermadecs, if made into a World Heritage area, could also generate millions.

This region is exceptional. It contains the world's longest volcanic arc, the second deepest ocean trench, more than six million seabirds of 39 different species, 35 species of whale and dolphin, three species of marine turtle, and thousands of species of fish and other marine life.

It is exceptional in cultural terms as a critical stopping-off point for the masterful Polynesian navigators who traversed the Pacific. In terms of the current economic value of fishing, the returns are not exceptional.


The Crown owns 84.5 per cent of the quota in these waters, and the Maori fisheries trust, Te Ohu Kaimoana, on behalf of Iwi holds 15.5 per cent. It only returns about 20 tonnes of fish a year, valued at about $65,000.

The Government wants to make this area a marine sanctuary of 620,000sq km, which would be about 15 per cent of New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone. Our current 44 existing marine protected areas are small and equate to less than 1 per cent of our total marine area.

This push is consistent with recent initiatives by Australia, the UK, the Cook Islands and New Caledonia. President Obama recently expanded the national marine monument off Hawaii to 1.5 million sq km, about twice the size of Texas, in which both commercial fishing and mining are banned.

Governments are doing this is because the international community has agreed to try to reach by 2020 a target of at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas having full protection. If such areas are correctly made in terms of location and restrictions, strong "spill-over" benefits occur as the size of fish and density of stocks increase in the protected area, and then spill over to adjoining locations.

Here is the problem. John Key announced to the world that he would create this sanctuary. After the disappointing nature of New Zealand's climate change policies, and his last engagement with protected areas resulted in mass public protests when he suggested opening up some of them for mining, this time the Prime Minister hoped for a conservation win.

The difficulty is that steps in the consultation processes were skipped, and most importantly, the idea that compensation should be paid to anyone who loses out because of this sanctuary proposal, has been ruled out. This covers Maori, non-Maori, fishing and mining companies. This is a mistake. Conservation, without the support of communities who are at the forefront of utilising areas, either on land or at sea, is at high risk of failure.

New Zealand has a proud tradition of co-operative approaches to the establishment of protected areas. The 1887 gift by Ngati Tuwharetoa of the most important mountain tops of Tongariro that formed the basis of this national park and later World Heritage area are the exemplar of how conservation between the Crown and indigenous groups should work, especially when meaningful co-management is established.

Strong caution is warranted if there is no co-operation. Property rights for all people must be respected and appropriate compensation offered if they are removed, whether they be in conservation areas or not. Given the legacy for why Maori were given these quota in the first place - for wrongful transgressions by the Crown in taking their property - the need to act appropriately is uppermost.

If handled carefully, the Kermadecs sanctuary has a good chance to become a World Heritage area. Such an area would protect ecological and cultural values, and generate strong economic benefits from which multiple communities could benefit.

If this occurs, the highest standards for the management of tourism must be established. So too must the highest standards for the governance of the asset be established.

If everyone co-operates, this is a win-win equation. If people prefer not to co-operate and adopt a shared vision of the Kermadecs as our Galapagos, then we shall squander the opportunity.