Over at Waiheke they've approved a new reserve. Its purpose: to restock the gulf with fish and bird life for generations to come, writes FIONA OLIPHANT.



As a child I played with my brother and sister on the mudflats of a bay which, like other yachties, we knew as Big Muddy. With our family mullet boat anchored in the shallows, we wallowed in the thick mud, our matching homemade orange towelling togs cast aside, while we waited to be picked up by the fast incoming tide.



Revisiting Te Matuku Bay nearly three decades later the tide is full, mudflats concealed beneath a breeze-rippled expanse of blue water. A fine late summer Sunday has the inner Hauraki Gulf alive with small craft, but Te Matuku is a sanctuary.



In the time it takes for the tide to slide out, exposing a forest of mangroves, just three boats visit. A speedboat buzzes around pulling someone on a plastic disk, while in silent contrast, a small yacht noses into the bay then out again. Neither disturbs a pair of oystercatchers dozing on an old concrete jetty on the other side of the bay.

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The largest and most natural of Waiheke's estuaries, Te Matuku is an obvious choice for a marine sanctuary which takes up the bay, apart from the oyster farm, and extending out into Tamaki Strait across the neck of the channel between Waiheke and Ponui Island.



In all, the reserve covers 700ha, half of which is outside the bay and which Forest and Bird says is necessary to protect a range of marine communities including the deeper-water crayfish and snapper habitat around Passage Rock. Boats of all sizes regularly motor or sail inside this important navigation point - a practice that the reserve will not change.



This will be no Goat Island reserve where people flock to snorkel among shoals of fish. Access is limited. You can get to Te Matuku by sea or from Orapiu Rd, which skirts the head of the bay and runs high along its eastern side, overlooking the sandspit and lagoon.



This means the bay is a world away from the emerging suburbia and bustling cafe scene at the western end of the island. Here regenerating bush meets saltmarsh swamp. Along the privately owned western side of the bay an oyster farm cuts neat lines through the water, and garnet-red rock covers the beach. A dozen baches rim Pearl Bay, near the eastern entrance to Te Matuku.



Conservation Minister Sandra Lee's approval of the Te Matuku Bay Marine Reserve - the first for an island in the Hauraki Gulf and the fourth for the Auckland region - was not achieved without a fight. Although the idea had been welcomed by its many supporters, the Department of Conservation received a flood of identical campaign letters against the reserve from people living in Papakura, Kawakawa Bay and surrounding areas, which made up nearly 70 per cent of all submissions, on behalf of Pearl Bay bach-owners worried about the reserve's impact on fishing, water sports and general use of the bay.



Other submissions included one from Ngati Paoa, tangata whenua on the island, who claimed the reserve would override Treaty and customary fishing rights, while a commercial flounder fisherman said it would undermine his quota.



In all, 148 submissions from groups and individuals backed the reserve. They included the majority of submitters who live on Waiheke, and Rob Fenwick, committed environmentalist, former leader of the Progressive Greens and a director of the Living Earth composting company.



One of the largest landowners in the bay, Fenwick's was a powerful voice. He covenanted his 373ha block of land, which includes the peninsula between Awaawaroa Bay and Te Matuku, to forever keep it from mining companies interested in the high-quality aggregate found there.



Fenwick says the marine reserve proposal spurred him to get cracking on his covenant, which provides for a 3km public walkway through the best piece of forest.



To Fenwick, it is the quality of Te Matuku's natural areas, linking bush with sea, which makes them unique and worthy of protection. But, always the pragmatist, he is not shy about mixing production with preservation. His covenant allows for pockets of horticulture and grazing, while he has revamped the dilapidated oyster farm, replacing the dense lines of posts and racks, which restrict tidal movement, with oyster baskets suspended on wires.



The reconfiguration has already shown an improvement. In just six months Fenwick has noticed that mud has shifted from the beach, and a more fertile feeding ground is attracting greater numbers of pied stilt, oystercatcher and wrybill.



"I see no conflict in having a well managed marine farm inside a marine reserve," he says.



What does make him wince are the appalling flounder-fishing practices he has seen over the years where nets are strung right across the bay and left for more than one tide - so cleaning out a whole tide of flounder.



"That was a key motivation [for me] to support the marine reserve," he says, "so those sort of practices would cease."



The one concern that local landowners have is that the marine reserve will attract too many people. Both Cyril Wright, who also owns the land in the bay, and Fenwick talk about the need to control the number of visitors. While neither is against public access, they are wary of attracting hoards of sightseers that might damage the delicate balance in the remote bay.



Wright lives near the protected sandspit, where the endangered New Zealand dotterel nests. Conservation-minded, he sold half his land to DoC for a reserve linking up with the spit. He says he supports the marine reserve and is prepared to give up fishing in the bay for it.



"We've already had problems with people and dogs from fizz boats," he says.



"The area couldn't cope with the busloads of people the marine reserve at Leigh gets - in any case they wouldn't see anything snorkelling, it's too muddy."



He believes Te Matuku should be more for the fish and wildlife, than the people - a place that is a breeding ground and rejuvenation point for the benefit of the environment and future generations, especially of vulnerable bird species.



Ironically, this tranquil and bush-fringed bay was once the site of Waiheke's first European settlement. Old drawings show the bay full of trading scows, with McLeod's pub on the western foreshore a popular stopover for skippers and crew as they ferried kauri logs and gold between Coromandel and Auckland. But the pub burned down in the 1920s and the settlement dispersed.



In pre-European times Te Matuku was also an important food source and canoe-landing place for Maori living in the surrounding coastal settlements and the nearby mountain pa of Maunganui. They called the bay Matuku, a name also given to the bittern, a wetland bird.



As other parts of Waiheke were developed, Te Matuku became recognised as special. In the late 1980s a DoC survey ranked it as a site of national importance and a priority for protection. About this time the Hauraki Islands branch of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society began investigating its potential as a marine reserve.



What distinguishes Te Matuku from Waiheke's other estuarine bays is its mosaic of coastal forest, saltwater wetland, giant mangroves and intertidal mudflats, and its rich marine and birdlife.



This intact sequence of merging biological communities, or ecotones, is rare in northern New Zealand. With chunks of the forested land in the catchment already protected in reserves, Forest and Bird saw an opportunity to extend this to coastal and marine habitats.



A marine reserve, they said, would allow marine life typical of the inner Hauraki Gulf to be studied in its natural state.



And with the 1971 Marine Reserve Act being updated, and a shift in the focus of marine reserves from scientific research to protecting biodiversity, Te Matuku would still fit the bill.



A survey by the Auckland Museum identified some 200 species of shellfish, snails, shrimps, crabs and worms in the mudflats alone, which makes rich pickings for wading birds such as the oystercatcher, heron and godwit.



The application cost Forest and Bird $20,000 and many voluntary hours to develop the proposal.



Peter White, chairman of the Hauraki Islands Forest and Bird branch, is happy about Lee's decision, which brings to a close a long and drawn-out process that was taxing on the small number of people involved.



Forest and Bird researcher Barry Weeber is also pleasantly surprised - although the decision, which comes more than three years after the organisation put in its application, must still be signed off by the Ministers of Transport and Fisheries.



As he says, while that step can sometimes takes years, he is confident Te Matuku presents no navigational problems while fisheries issues are minor.



"It's taken a long time - over a decade," he says, "and its only through the tenacity of people in the Waiheke branch that the proposal got to where it is today."



With my sights raised from floundering in the mud and an adult's sense of the bay, I too feel reassured that this special place is going to be protected and cared for.