Regional councils might be able to control fishing to protect native species in their regional plans following a landmark ruling by the Environment Court.
The decision relates to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council after the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust pushed for controls around the Rena wreck.
The trust and Forest & Bird want fishing to be regulated in the area, particularly around Astrolabe Reef, where the Rena grounded in October 2011, to allow the ecosystem to recover.
The regional council believed it did not have the power to control fishing or fishing methods.
However, the Environment Court said councils could impose fishing rules for the purpose of protecting native species or for recognising the relationship of Māori with their taonga.
Forest & Bird environment lawyer Sally Gepp said it was a very important ruling.
"After the Rena incident there were some controls put in place and an exclusion zone was put in place and marine life has really flourished in the area since then, but as soon as that was removed and fishing activities got back in there, many of the fishable species have been stripped off the reef again."
The regional council's integrated planning manager David Phizacklea said the reef was an area with unique biodiversity, and one that should be protected.
But the council was not sure the biodiversity had suffered as much as Forest and Bird – and the Trust – claimed.
"We have heard anecdotally that obviously with the restriction being lifted there has been heavy fishing in that area, but as to whether that's had an impact on biodiversity, that's unknown."
The council said it thought deciding which people can fish, and how, should be a matter for central government.
Mr Phizacklea said the council needed to understand the declaration, and go through more appeals, before it could be sure what its responsibilities around the reef were.
Ms Gepp said the decision set a nation-wide precedent and other regional councils would be looking at it with interest.
The Motiti Rohe Moana Trust said it was very pleased with the clarity the Environment Court's ruling has provided.