This week, we finally got to hear the Government's response to the Sea Change -Tai Timu Tai Pari Plan.
Rightly, it was applauded by many as a step forward in moving the Gulf back to being a diverse and productive ecosystem. But compared to the aspirations of many, including the stated goals of the Hauraki Gulf Forum, it's a small step.
We have been waiting for this moment for about five years, so congratulations to Ministers Parker and Verrall on overcoming massive inertia.
The Sea Change process started in 2011 and grew out of widespread frustration with the inaction of management agencies dealing with the systemic decline in the Gulf. After a lot of shared learning and hard talking a plan was co-developed in 2016.
The 144-page document that sets out the Government's response and plan to work on the gulf is the important next phase. Looking through the report, it's clear the Government has accepted some of Sea Change's recommendations but we are not leaping into action or transformative change. This is not mirroring the Government's Covid-19 response of going hard and early.
A key element of the Government's plan is to increase the proportion of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park with a high level of marine protection, shifting from the current 0.3 per cent of the area of the park to about 5 per cent in the next three years.
This is a start but we will need an exponential increase in marine protection to reach the forum's goal of 30 per cent protection. We are told these changes are slow because laws need to change – but revision of our current Marine Reserves Act has been before Parliament for decades. Surely the legal groundwork has been done.
Some of the proposed changes in the Gulf involve simply extending the seaward boundaries of our current marine reserves. Why not drag those reserve boundary markers a little bit further out to sea now? We have excellent evidence from our research at Leigh that the reserve is having a disproportionately positive influence on snapper populations and that the current reserve is just too small to accommodate the abundant shellfish beds beyond the reserve boundary that are the important feeding grounds for crayfish. Let's make a start and do at least this now.
One thing to like in the report is the recognition that the focus of marine management must shift to restoring the Gulf's ecosystems. But equally important, we now must engage in both passive and active habitat restoration.
Active restoration is essential because, in some circumstances, nature needs a helping hand to recover and in others we can speed up recovery times. We are working out how to actively restore shellfish beds and kelp forests, not only because we want to see these specific species living back on the seafloor but because they can trigger the recovery of much wider biodiversity and effective functioning of the ecosystem (e.g., processing contaminants, storing carbon). These are collaborative efforts involving iwi, community groups, NGO's, the aquaculture industry and marine scientists. There is massive energy, enthusiasm and expectation for shellfish restoration in the Gulf and other parts of New Zealand.
How to underpin successful restoration of marine habitats is an emerging field of research that has so far failed to attract substantive government support, so our efforts are supported by the generosity of donors. In contrast the state and federal governments of Australia are investing millions in getting this right. The plan needs the support of a broader range of science than just monitoring if we are to be successful.
Scientifically, we understand many of the problems of the Gulf and the collective risks they pose to restoration. The first field studies of trawl and dredge impacts in New Zealand were conducted in the early 1990s and the first experiments on sediment impacts in the mid-1990s.
But we have much to learn, particularly about how to shift to restorative management, how to connect our understanding across boundaries and how to link science to management actions. If we do not understand how the Gulf ecosystem works then how can we fix it?
We also need to learn how to transform our marine governance structures.
It's encouraging to see a focus on ecosystem-based management as a more inclusive, holistic and future-focused framework for us all to engage in our Gulf's future. But it's a worry that we may not have the focus on actions needed to ensure the transformation and restoration of our wonderful treasure and food basket that is the Hauraki Gulf.
Hopefully, we won't have to wait another 10 years to find out.
• Simon Thrush is director of the Institute of Marine Science at ihe University of Auckland.