The Government will ban trawl fishing from most of Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, and create 18 new protection areas, in a major new environmental plan.
Ocean advocates say the proposals could represent the "most positive change for the Gulf in a generation" but warn stronger action is needed to undo generations of overfishing, destructive fishing methods and pollution.
Under the Government's long-awaited response to the Sea Change Tai Timu Tai Pari plan for the Hauraki Gulf, which was first published in 2016, fully protected marine areas would increase from less than 0.3 per cent to over 5 per cent of the 1.2 million hectare marine park that stems from Te Arai in the north to Waihi in the south.
Areas with a lower level of protection would increase from about six per cent to 18 per cent.
There will also be new catch settings to increase the amount of fish.
However, while "welcome news", advocates say the proposal is still well short of the minimum 30 per cent scientists say is needed to be in "no-take" marine reserves to restore the severely depleted ecosystems.
Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker and the Acting Minister of Conservation Ayesha Verrall released the Revitalising the Gulf Plan today, which has been nearly four years in the making.
New protected areas included 6.3 percent in a cable protection zone, 5.4 percent in Seafloor Protection Areas, and 5.6 percent in High Protection Areas - similar to no-take marine reserves but with case-by-case customary rights.
The 0.3 percent in no-take marine reserves would hardly change, with extensions of 15 square km and 14 square km to existing reserves at Goat Island and Whanganui-a-Hei respectively.
Parker said he acknowledged it fell short of aspirations for 30 per cent to be protected, but it was "a start" and he urged people not to "understate its significance".
No new marine protected areas had been added to the Marine Park since it was established in 2000.
"We are also taking the long view, recognising that sustained action is necessary to ensure that the Gulf and its economic, environmental, cultural and social benefits can continue to be enjoyed."
Verrall said some of the world's most unique species of marine life relied on a healthy Gulf.
The strategy would guide an "ongoing programme of work for the long-term health of the Hauraki Gulf" and responded to the call to action in the 2017 Sea Change Tai Timu Tai Pari Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan, Verrall said.
The Government would be continuing work with mana whenua and key stakeholders to make sure it's done right, Verrall said.
Hauraki Gulf Forum co-chair Tangata Whenua Nicola MacDonald said the plans represented a "first step" towards the forum's ambition for at least 30 per cent marine protection to restore the mauri of Te Moananui-ā-Toi, Tīkapa Moana.
"Proposed new marine protected areas and changes to bottom-impact fishing, if
implemented, would represent the most positive change for the Gulf in a generation."
However, consecutive forum state-of-the-gulf reports had highlighted stronger action was needed to stem the flow of sediment and other pollutants into the gulf, ease pressures on wildlife, reverse dwindling fish stocks and restore the health of crucial ecosystems.
"The forum's position is clear: bottom-impact fishing methods like dredging and trawling should be removed from the entire Marine Park," co-chair Pippa Coom said.
"A healthy seafloor underpins the whole ecosystem."
In many areas of the Hauraki Gulf there were new, bold plans for marine protection and restoration already led by and in partnership with mana whenua.
"It is important that the Government's Sea Change response creates a mechanism by which existing proposals can be upgraded, and new proposals considered," Coom said.
Green Party oceans and fisheries spokesperson Eugenie Sage said while they welcomed the increased marine protection more needed to be done.
The 2016 Sea Change report recommended the Government "exclude activities (e.g. dredging, bottom trawling, Danish seining, dumping and sea bed mining) that damage habitats by 2025".
"We desperately need to restore the seabed in the Gulf if we want healthy ecosystems and abundant fisheries for future generations, and that means we need to start completely phasing out activities like trawling and scallop dredging today; and substantially reduce sediment inputs.
"The Government should commit to protecting 30 per cent of the Gulf, a goal which has been endorsed by the Hauraki Gulf Forum, so our oceans can start to recover and fish, and seabirds and marine life thrive."
Environmental education group Blake programme manager and PhD student Jacob Anderson said the latest proposals were "fantastic" but urged stronger action.
"Research suggests we need at least 30 per cent of our oceans protected to restore ecosystems, protect fish populations and mitigate climate impacts – all forms of protection will help our oceans thrive.
"A recent study suggests bottom trawling releases as much carbon as global aviation.
"Increasing the number of marine protected areas, in particular, the new measures excluding bottom trawling will prevent carbon emissions being released from the sea floor."
Environmental Defence Society policy director Dr Raewyn Peart called the plans "substantive commitments".
"These are large areas protecting some of the most biodiverse habitats within the gulf," she said.
"One only has to compare the size of some of these new areas with the current marine reserves."
The area of the current marine reserves at Leigh, for instance, spanned 5.2 km2, and 8.2km sq at Hahei – while new high protection area at Hauturu/Little Barrier Island measured 195km2, while that around the Alderman islands covered 288km2.
"So this is a step change in marine protection. It is much needed and should make a real contribution to the recovery of the Hauraki Gulf."
Further, she added, the removal of much bottom disturbing fishing activity would enable broad areas of seabed to gradually recover.
"This includes removal of trawling and Danish seining from the most of the gulf, banning of recreational scallop dredging and freezing the commercial scallop dredging footprint."
Peart expected much of the gulf's degraded reef systems should also recover if fishing pressure was removed - as had been demonstrated by the recovery in existing marine reserves where kelp had re-established and fish populations have recovered.
"The seabed will likely be slower to recover on its own, due to the chronic impacts of trawling activity over the past century," she said.
"That is where intervention such as shellfish bed restoration can be really helpful in speeding up recovery."
Scientists have also welcomed the moves.
"This seems to me to be the biggest single initiative to give greater protection to the marine environment in the Hauraki Gulf since the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park was formed over 20 years ago," University of Auckland marine biologist Professor Andrew Jeffs said.
"It is long overdue and the community in the area are keen to see the restoration of this iconic area of marine environment."
For those areas of the marine environment given high protection status, Jeffs said, the changes would make a big difference in restoring the natural ecological functioning of their habitats.
"Identifying and protecting more key habitats will also be important in the longer term, and reducing fishing pressure on some key fish stocks, such as crayfish, will be critical for restoring ecological function," Jeffs said.
"My biggest concern is the implementation – it is exciting and ambitious and rapid programme they have proposed, which is just what is needed – the agencies will need the political support and resources if they are going to implement in the time frame outlined."
Niwa's fisheries and ecosystems programme leader Dr Darren Parsons called the strategy a "game-changer".
The agency's fisheries chief scientist, Dr Richard O'Driscoll, said the gulf's closeness to Auckland – and the range of pressures that came with that – made restoring its ecosystems challenging.
"But if we can successfully deliver in this area, then we might also apply similar strategies in other areas of New Zealand."
O'Driscoll said it was vital the strategy's key objective to create an area-based fisheries plan didn't consider fisheries in isolation, but alongside other factors like habitat restoration.
"Everything is interconnected – fisheries impact the ecosystem, but changes in the ecosystem also impact fisheries."
University of Auckland marine biologist Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine said addressing long-standing issues around sedimentation, pollution and fishing would require action by all those who lived near the gulf.
"Mana whenua are well placed to be at the forefront of this discussion already evidenced by an increasing number of rāhui in response to degraded ecosystems."
She pointed out the gulf was a global hotspot for seabirds and is important habitat for many species of cetacean, sharks, and rays – and these species remained under stress with shifts in prey availability linked to environmental changes.
"We need to restore ecosystem function to ensure these large marine animals have a future in the gulf and that is going to require substantial change in how we view our relationship with these waters."
Revitalising the Gulf – Government action on the Sea Change Plan:
• The creation of 18 new marine protection areas and a framework to support the active restoration of some of the most biodiverse regions in the Gulf. The 18 new protected areas will increase marine protection in the Gulf almost threefold.
• A fisheries plan with a range of changes to fishing practices and catch settings, including restricting trawl fishing to within carefully selected "corridors".
• Better monitoring to improve understanding of the marine environment and track progress over time.
• An expanded programme of protected species management.
• Working together with mana whenua and local communities on local area coastal management.
• Promoting a prosperous, sustainable aquaculture industry.
- with RNZ