The Government's proposals for revamping our marine protection legislation are long overdue. It is now 45 years since the Marine Reserves Act 1971 came into force. That legislation was world leading for its time. But we now know a lot more about the vast variety of life in the sea, its importance to us and our growing impacts on it.
What is the government proposing?
There will be an expanded range of tools for marine protection, including seabed reserves and species-specific sanctuaries in addition to no-take marine reserves. There will be provision for inclusive collaborative processes and independent boards of inquiry to consider proposals. This is all positive.
A key flaw in the proposals, and it is a critical one, is the failure to extend the new marine protection tools out into the EEZ (12 to 200 nautical miles offshore). Surely if we are prepared to contemplate oil, gas and mining within the EEZ we need the ability to balance this activity with marine protection. If enough people speak out, this issue should gain the attention of the Government's support parties and can be fixed.
Of most local significance is the creation of a recreational fishing park in the inner Hauraki Gulf. The park concept was described by Ministers Nick Smith and Nathan Guy, in the run up to the 2014 national election, as "areas which will be reserved predominantly for recreational fishing and will enhance the opportunity for Kiwi families to catch fish."
But will they work?
The quality of the recreational fishing experience is based on the ability to catch fish, and this in turns relies on abundant fish stocks. But the recreational fishing park doesn't appear to provide any mechanisms to improve the quantity of fish in the water.
Excluding commercial fishing will not in itself increase fish stocks and there is no proposal to reduce the total amount of fish harvested. In addition, fish will move outside the recreational park boundary and can still be caught by commercial fishers. Some compensation will be provided to commercial fishers, but it is not clear whether this will simply be a cash payment, or whether some commercial quota will be retired in exchange.
In the short-term, retirement of quota would leave more fish in the water for recreational fishers. But in the longer term, in the context of depleted stocks such as snapper, and a fast growing Auckland population, additional actions will also be required to maintain healthy recreational catches.
Recreational fishing parks could be designed to encourage recreational fishers to constructively engage in proactive management such as a requirement for them to report their catch using phone apps or similar in order to monitor stocks more accurately.
There are some other important design issues.
First, large bulk fishing methods such as trawling and Danish seining, which damage the shellfish beds and sponge gardens which juvenile fish need to survive, are already banned from the inner gulf. The historic loss of these habitats was devastating to the gulf's productivity.
The fishers who now operate in the proposed park area use low impact methods such as long lining which creates more jobs, has reduced impacts on the marine environment and produces higher quality and value fish. If they were put out of business it would be a retrograde step.
Secondly, the current proposals prevent marine reserves being created within the recreational fishing park unless the affected portion of the existing park is revoked. This is clumsy.
Marine reserves are the only proven management tool to enable restoration of reef systems that have become degraded through heavy fishing pressure. Marine reserves have also proven very effective at rapidly increasing fish populations, and these benefits spill out into active fishing grounds.
Putting obstacles in the way of creating marine reserves in the inner gulf makes no sense. It would be in stark contrast to the outstanding regeneration that is occurring on the land of the gulf islands, with pest eradication and replanting, and endangered bird species such as the kōkako, saddleback and takahē being brought back to Auckland's doorstep.
Marine reserves are strongly supported by the public and should be available as an option to complement our island jewels. This could be achieved by the legislation enabling marine reserves to be nested inside the recreational fishing park.
Overall, the reform proposals are welcome and heading in the right direction. But they clearly need more work through the consultation and select committee processes.