22 Jun 2021

Hauraki Gulf marine protections win broad support as 'a good start'

6:57 pm on 22 June 2021

Fishing industry figures and environmentalists have come out in support of newly announced plans for a vast expansion of marine protection areas in the Hauraki Gulf.

The government today unveiled its plan to better protect Hauraki Gulf / Tīkapa Moana o Hauraki, which it describes as "badly degraded by human activities".

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Hauraki Gulf stretches from just south of Mangawhai to Waihi Beach, including the east coast of Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula and many islands. Photo: Ferntech/ Unsplash

Successive reports in recent years have warned about the impact of overfishing, pollution, plastics and sedimentation on the marine environment, and the strategy is specifically in response to the call for action made by the Sea Change -Tai Timu Tai Pari Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan.

Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker said significant action was needed to arrest the ecosystem's decline.

Changes include large new marine protection zones and changes to fishing practices, including a significant restriction on commercial bottom trawling operations.

"We're tripling the size of highly protected areas in the Gulf, which will allow not only fish stocks but all of the other seabirds, the shellfish and other species to reach higher numbers," acting conservation minister Ayesha Verrall said.

Bottom trawling restrictions: 'important protection', but challenging

Restrictions will stop the majority of commercial bottom trawling - but some would still be allowed in specific corridors.

"This is the biggest control of bottom trawling that there is in any part of New Zealand, and we're doing that because of the problems that we've currently got in the Gulf, in the confident belief this is going to make an enormous difference," Parker said.

Hauraki Gulf Forum co-chair Nicola MacDonald (Ngāti Rehua, Patuharakeke, Te Whānau Whero and Te Ākitai, and Te Rarawa and Taranaki iwi) thought that did not go far enough.

"We don't believe that there's any place for dredging, trawling and bottom impact fishing methods. They have a devastating impact on the marine and habitat," she said.

Kina shown, on barren seabed at The Noises islands in the Hauraki Gulf.

Kina shown, on barren seabed at The Noises islands in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Supplied/ Hauraki Gulf Forum

Seafood New Zealand's chief executive Dr Jeremy Helson said the area's snapper fishery was one of the largest commercial fisheries, and implementing the plan would create plenty of challenges.

"Setting aside some areas as marine protected areas has some impact, but we'll work through government to try and mitigate those and provide the best biodiversity protection we can," he said.

Dr Helson said the company had operated in the Gulf for many decades and wanted that to continue.

"We respect the fact it's a very popular area, so we'll be working with government to try and balance those various needs.

"Protection is important for the marine environment, not just intrinsically, but it's important for the seafood industry as well to have a healthy, functioning marine environment because that's ultimately what drives the commercial fishing industry," he said.

'A good starting point' - mana whenua

Mana whenua of Tīkapa Moana were relieved with the government strategy.

MacDonald said the consultation process with mana whenua had been significant.

She said the priorities for iwi was to implement the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, particularly in respect to article two relating to protection and tino rangatiratanga over natural resources.

"For the last 20 years our taonga resources have been under severe stress and it has absolutely got to stop."

"The way in which Māori are able to exercise mana motuhake, the way in which we are able to realise our kaitiakitanga needs to be incorporated if not leading and advancing the aspirations of sea-change" she said.

Paul Majurey from Pare Hauraki said the government drawing a line in the sand was a very good starting point.

"Of course there are going to be areas of common ground and areas that we need to work on where different groups have different views," he said. "But the fact that we've reached this point means that we can now begin that conversation and make sure everyone's around the table."

Tupuna Maunga o Tamaki Makaurau Authority chairman Paul Majurey

Paul Majurey Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

He said there was strong support from mana whenua for the marine protected areas as they would lift biodiversity and ecological outcomes, but he also wanted to ensure that mana whenua were not locked out of areas under the new protections.

"The concept which the government has come out in support of, of ongoing customary practices taking place in marine protected areas, is an important one," he said.

Not all groups would share the same view, but today marked the first step, Majurey said.

"The fact that we've reached this point means we can now begin that conversation and make sure everyone's around the table".

Ngāti Manuhiri Settlement Trust chair Terrence Hohneck said the process to establish the action plan for the gulf had been robust and it was good to finally reach a result.

He said having multiple iwi come together as a strategic rōpū was a huge undertaking but it was only the begining.

"We're happy that we're making progress but there's still a lot of work to be done."

"We still have reservations around how quick we can do this, there's a lot more room, a lot more scope that's needed and required to actually stop a lot of the activities that we see that are harmful," he said.

MacDonald said for Māori it was about looking forward and the sea change strategy offered a turning point to address the dire state of the gulf.

"For Māori, the benefit for us is to ensure that the taonga resources that are ours by whakapapa, by right, that we are protecting, restoring and looking after these properly."

Mana whenua will be monitoring progress towards restoring the Hauraki gulf within areas such as food stocks, kaimoana collections, pillaging of seafood stocks, habitat restoration and whanaungatanga with their tupuna and taonga.

Joe Davis from Ngāti Hei said there could not be a more crucial ecosystem than the moana.

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Hector's dolphins have been sighted in the Hauraki Gulf. (File photo). Photo: Supplied

"We treasure the taonga that Tangaroa gives us, and it's up to us as humans, as the apex predators in this whole thing, we're responsible otherwise Tangaroa is going to take it off us. We're talking about extinctions, wairua lost, mauri lost, if we don't look after the children of Tangaroa."

And with the near tripling of the size of marine protected areas, he said enforcement would be needed.

"[They're already] struggling now with compliance around marine reserves. With this huge increase in [marine protection areas], how are they going to comply? What sort of pressures are they going to put on themselves, as well as the public, in managing those MPAs," Davis said.

'More protections needed' - environmental commentators

The Hauraki Gulf Forum, a statutory governance board described the area as "the seabird capital of the world, and a whale superhighway," but said successive reports about the health of the ecosystem had showed "it is a shadow of its former self".

The forum welcomed the expansion of the protected areas, but said "some areas will remain at risk" and there was a need for more ambition to fully protect the seafloor in the area from destructive fishing methods.

Forum co-chair Pippa Coom said: "bottom-impact fishing methods like dredging and trawling should be removed from the entire Marine Park; a healthy seafloor underpins the whole ecosystem."

Otago University zoology professor emeritus Liz Slooten was very happy with the move, and said marine protected areas with no fishing worked.

"In terms of increasing the number and size of fish inside those reserves - and also in terms of spillover, so you get better fishing outside of them."

She said Hauraki Gulf was a marine animal hotspot.

"It's an area where there are loads of different seabird species, many of which are endemic to New Zealand, and there have been several sightings of Hector's Dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf as well - and it's not yet clear if these are the endangered Hector's dolphin or the critically endangered Māui subspecies.

"Gillnets and trawling catch dolphins and other marine mammals and seabirds and sharks, so it's good to see there'll be a reduction in that kind of bulk fishing that catches marine mammals."

Prof Slooten said New Zealand still had a lot to do to meet international recommendations for protecting our oceans and marine life.

"[For] the rest of the east coast of the North Island and other parts of the South Island that aren't so well protected, it would be great to see some more improvements."

Slooten said the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee report again recommended New Zealand fully protect Māui dolphins - the 10th year they had made the call.

"They continue to call for a ban on gill nets and trawling out to 20 nautical miles offshore."

Other dolphin-friendly fishing methods would still be allowed under those recommendations, she said.

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Snapper in the Goat Island marine reserve, in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Paul Kennedy/ 123rf

Today's announcement was largely welcomed by Greenpeace Aotearoa executive director Russel Norman, in addition to last week's announcement of more cameras on commercial vessels.

"What you've seen with the new minister [Parker] is things have started to change," Norman said.

"There's a series of steps they've been making. We still want to see more cameras rolled out more quickly, and move on bottom trawling, which is immensely damaging."

Important details still to be revealed

Sanford chief executive Peter Reidie said there were still details to be worked out, but broadly speaking, he supports the plan.

"We're on board in terms of the Gulf being a precious place, and fishing resource and sustainability in the Gulf is really important to us... so we're on board with doing that better and more effectively.

"Ensuring good protected areas and substantial-sized protected areas is a good thing, and we are supportive of that. It's just the balancing act and understanding the impact."

The area of the Hauraki Gulf was small in comparison to New Zealand's total fishing area, he said, but he was confident the government was listening to the fishing industry and they would get a workable plan once the details were revealed.

Sailboats on moorings in Okahu Bay in Auckland during sunset on calm day.

Sailboats on moorings in Okahu Bay, Auckland. Photo: 123RF

The plan largely focused on commercial activities, but Recreational Fishing Council president Keith Ingram worried the positioning of the expanded marine protection areas would force amateur boaties out too far from the coast.

"These people have second-hand old boats, and they fish the inner Gulf. If they get pushed out in the open water, we know the Hauraki Gulf weather conditions can change in an hour."

What happens next, and where?

Some of the measures in the new plan can be implemented soon, and others such as specific catch limits will be developed over the next 12 months.

The new marine protection areas are expected to be passed into legislation and in force by the end of 2024.

The latest plan is to add 18 new marine protection areas, which would increase the protected parts of the Gulf almost threefold.

Once expanded, the total marine protected areas - where people are not allowed to fish at all - will be 18 percent of the Gulf - about 200,000 hectares.

The Hauraki Gulf extends from Te Arai, near Mangawhai, down as far south as Waihi Beach, including the Coromandel Peninsula and many islands.

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