A plan to turn around the desperate state of the Hauraki Gulf has taken a major step forward with the Government unveiling its expert advisory panel.

The Sea Change Plan, developed over four years by a cross-sector group, was unveiled in 2016, to help stem the flow of sediment and other pollutants into the gulf, ease pressures on wildlife, reverse dwindling fish stocks, and restore the health of crucial ecosystems.

But the plan lay dormant for nearly two years, with the Hauraki Gulf Forum fearing it would fail due to lack of funding and enforcement options, until last November the Government announced plans to revive it.

Today the Government unveiled its Ministerial Advisory Committee to work over the next 12 months to help shape its response to the various proposals.

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Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says the Hauraki Gulf/Tikapa Moana is a
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says the Hauraki Gulf/Tikapa Moana is a "national taonga". Photo / File

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said the Hauraki Gulf/Tikapa Moana was "rightly recognised as a national taonga or treasure".

"I'd like to thank the many people who worked tirelessly from all across the community to develop these proposals for the Hauraki Gulf.

"Our task now is to assess these proposals and consider the actions we take to achieve the aspirations."

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 Sea Change 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 are managed, create 13 new marine protected areas (MPAs) and extend two existing ones.

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.

Photographs provided by the Mussel Reef Restoration Trust show the effect of its mussel bed restoration trial off eastern Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf in 2014. Photo / Supplied
Photographs provided by the Mussel Reef Restoration Trust show the effect of its mussel bed restoration trial off eastern Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf in 2014. Photo / Supplied

At present there are six marine reserves - covering 0.3 per cent of the gulf - where no habitat disturbance or removal of marine life is allowed in the gulf, and five MPAs where no bottom-contact fishing is allowed.

The plan also 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.

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In spite of delays in implementing the plan, the advisory Hauraki Gulf Forum this year announced ambitions to have 20 per cent of the gulf protected, and restore 1000sq km of reef and shellfish beds.

Sage previously told the Herald she was supportive of that ambition and those proposals would be covered by the advisory committee, along with the plan's other proposals for protected areas, rāhui, customary fishing and phasing out certain fishing methods.

Various protection areas proposed. Type 1 refers to no take marine reserves (customary harvest by special permit excepted). Type 2 is for benthic (seabed) protection. Image / Sea Change
Various protection areas proposed. Type 1 refers to no take marine reserves (customary harvest by special permit excepted). Type 2 is for benthic (seabed) protection. Image / Sea Change

"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.

Any proposals would have a thorough public consultation process, she said.

The nine-person committee included members with expertise in commercial and Māori fishing - including four mana whenua, fisheries management, environment, law and marine science.

It would be co-chaired under a co-governance model by Catherine Harland and Paul Majurey.

The Hauraki Gulf looks good on the surface, but below is a story of declining fish stocks, and rising levels of pollution and sediment. Photo / Michael Craig
The Hauraki Gulf looks good on the surface, but below is a story of declining fish stocks, and rising levels of pollution and sediment. Photo / Michael Craig

Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash said they were committed to the plan.

"We are very committed to this. It's a big task, and we're only at the beginning stages – but the work done by all the people behind the Sea Change Plan has laid an excellent foundation."

The Ministerial Advisory Committee includes Catherine Harland (Co-Chair), Paul Majurey (Mana Whenua Co-Chair), Volker Kuntzsch, Dr Jeremy Helson, Raewyn Peart, Dr John Montgomery, Tame Te Rangi, Dr Valmaine Toki and Liane Ngamane.