How much money did we put towards understanding and better managing the moana in the 2020 Budget? Pretty much close to zero.
Yet we have become acutely aware of the importance of the sea for our survival and wellbeing.
Our big blue backyard is in serious trouble according to Government's own 2019 state of the environment report.
A century of over-exploitation, global warming, and decades of under-investment in the knowledge infrastructure to support wise management, has all contributed to an unfolding crisis.
Many seabirds and marine mammals are on the abyss of extinction. Damage to seabed habitats on an astonishing scale is robbing the ecology of resilience, as the oceans heat, acidify, expand, and rise.
How do we fix this big, but solvable, problem? To tackle this, we urgently need to know more about how to sustain and regenerate nature's infrastructure.
Budget-ready needs include: Taking stock - seabed habitat and natural capital mapping; Shellfish restoration to regenerate biodiversity, and thereby generate restoration economies and restoration tourism in places like the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds; Supporting iwi in their vision for moana kaitiaki; Removal of plastics from around our coastlines and inshore waters, and better control of storm water inflows; Marine education to help us all appreciate what we have lost and how to regenerate the diversity and abundance of marine life; Creation of high-value artisanal fisheries with targeted regulation and experimentation; Funding retirement of erosion-prone hillsides that discharge millions of tons of sediment and choke our coasts.
We currently have many critical needs.
Relatively little of our 4.1 million km2 marine estate has been mapped accurately.
We now have the technology to rapidly "see" through the depths by sending out a fan of multiple sound beams to create a three-dimensional picture of the seabed. The level of precision is breathtaking; revealing reefs, canyons, ridges, plains, shipwrecks, kelp forests, freshwater plumes, anchor drag marks, and the thousand cuts of scallop dredges.
State-of-the-art underwater cameras deployed over these seascapes provide vital knowledge of the biodiverse natural capital that capture carbon, cycle nutrients, and form living habitat structures.
The NIWA-led survey of Queen Charlotte Sound/Tōtaranui revealed all these features, and more. Surveys in Taranaki, Canterbury and Southland are scheduled to occur later this year, but only for navigation safety purposes.
Additional funding of $10-12 million will exponentially expand the knowledge gained for
understanding ecosystems and the processes that sustain marine life.
These opportunities would be more easily capitalised on under a national seabed habitat mapping programme. An expert committee appointed by Government Ministers could lead the integration of different agency requirements to identify strategic priorities to inform better ocean management.
A $200 million fund over 10 years would drive a quantum leap in knowledge. This is still markedly less than a new stadium, highway extension, or convention centre.
Restoration of mussel, cockle and pipi beds are also essential, as are kelp forests that
host crayfish and paua. These are vital habitats for their ecological functions, and they also hold immense cultural value to iwi.
Iwi have been calling for better management of the moana since the 19th century. Enabling fuller expression of kaitiakitanga and tino rangatiratanga will help to restore mauri.
Workers who have lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19 could be redeployed to clean up our coastlines, estuaries, and river banks. Investment in storm-water management is also urgently needed to prevent plastics and other contaminants from pouring into our harbours, estuaries and inshore waters.
Airline stewards with their excellent interpersonal skills could be retrained to survey and educate communities, to help inform new visions for local seascapes which also enhance tourist opportunities to immerse themselves – figuratively, metaphorically or virtually.
Generating innovative solutions to long-standing issues. These could include developing high-value artisanal fisheries by replacing dredges with hand-gathering of scallops, with diving, processing, marketing and transport jobs in small communities.
It is time for a transition away from exploitation to a much more ecologically benign, and therefore sustainable, set of industries to underpin a truly flourishing blue economy.
Funding the retirement of pasture and pine in erosion-prone gullies, gully heads and steep slopes with crumbling soils would reduce the risk of sediment runoff and debris flows into our waterways.
An estimated 192 million tonnes of topsoil is lost into our marine waters each year. The literal erosion of natural capital needs preventative investment.
These critical needs are not exhaustive – they provide a sense of urgency of the mahi before us.
Improving the resilience of marine ecosystems will also help to strengthen communities, as we come together in new ways to protect and cherish our moana.
• Dr Steve Urlich is a lecturer in Environmental Management at Lincoln University and Professor Simon Thrush is Director of the Auckland University Centre for Marine Studies.