When the weather is kind, the Hauraki Gulf teems with runabouts filled with fishers hoping for a catch. For many years, while the number of boats has grown - nearly 7000 reportedly head out on a fine summer day - fish stocks have fallen. The odds of catching a decent snapper have lengthened, and the prospects of filling a legal bag sometimes seem remote. It is not just in the Gulf that fishers can return from a day at sea with a light chilly bin. The Marlborough Sounds is the major summer destination for South Island boaties. There the fishery, shared by recreational craft and commercial boats with quotas, is under strain. To satisfy demands from the recreational fishing lobby to relieve pressure on these inshore waters and, more broadly, to overhaul marine protection around New Zealand's coast, the Government is proposing a new Marine Protected Areas Act.
Under the act, recreational fishing parks would be created in the Gulf and the Sounds. The Gulf park would exclude commercial operators from a sweep of inner waters, though case-by-case exemptions could be permitted. In the Sounds, blue cod would become a recreational fish, with fishing companies restricted to shellfish and crays. It is a significant restriction on the industry, though its discomfort will be eased by compensation from a $20 million pot.
The park plan is one element of marine protection reforms. Four protection categories are proposed. Marine reserves sit at the top and would remain in their natural state. Species-specific sanctuaries would, as their name suggests, be set up to protect one or more named species in an area where commercial activity could occur. In seabed reserves, anything disturbing the sea floor such as mining or dredging would be prohibited. The fishing parks fall under the final category, and while the main recreational attractions - such as snapper in the Gulf - would be off-limits to commercial boats, fishing companies could go after plentiful species.
The Government says its reforms will not affect customary rights, and is reassuring the mineral industry with the promise that no protected area would be created where permits have been granted. Generally the reforms are welcome, and the steps proposed to create protected areas - either through a collaborative process or a formal inquiry - are sensible in an area notable for entrenched opinions.
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But the plan begs some questions. It doesn't, for instance, define commercial fishing. Are charter boats that take out groups of fishers commercial or recreational? What is the recreational take? Will catch reporting in fishing parks be enforced to monitor stocks? Parks could appeal to more fishers, and end up with reduced stocks. Methods must be devised to monitor resources within the parks to ensure they are sustainable. Recreational fishing parks may attract more fishing and thus end up with reduced resources.
In terms of the bigger picture, the legislation does not extend to New Zealand's vast Exclusive Economic Zone. Conservation groups want the EEZ included, but the cost could be prohibitive. Submissions, which close on March 11, give the public the chance to have a say on these important changes. The opportunity should not be wasted.