On Wednesday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins stepped in front of a gaggle of microphones, and, flanked by ministers of Conservation and Oceans & Fisheries, described the decline of the Hauraki Gulf, the plight of snapper and the disappearance of kelp forests as if it was news to the audience.
We were in Tamaki Yacht Club, beneath the promontory of Bastion Point, a taonga site for Ngāti Whātua o Orākei. A place confiscated, then restored to the iwi. A place where the sewer pipe visible from the window once belched the great volume of Auckland suburban waste into the Waitematā. A place that has become the signifier of everything that is right and wrong with the Hauraki Gulf.
With the winter sun glancing off wave tops and winking at us through the windows, everything looked right. But those in the room—iwi, scientists, conservationists and community members—knew exactly what the Prime Minister was glossing over in his notes. We had seen the vast kina barrens first hand, felt the mushy flesh of starving snapper, seen the devastation wrought by a new invader, Caulerpa, now blanketing the embayments of Aotea, Ahuahu, Waiheke, Bay of Islands in vast carpets of monotonous green.
After a decade of talking, we had finally arrived at a solution that almost everyone could live with. The ‘Sea Change’ plan was consulted to near-death, then diluted and reconstituted in advisory committees, to arrive here in Tamaki, as if on the tips of our fingers. Today was the day.
But Hipkins’ message was confusing. He announced the new protected areas everyone had expected, tallying the new marine protections at 18 per cent. (It isn’t 18 per cent.) Then the Herald reported bottom trawling had been ‘banned’. (It isn’t banned.) And customary fishing practices would be allowed within the context of high protected areas. (But no details.) Most of all, people were confused about how and why government would allow bottom-trawling to continue in what is a national park of the sea.
So, gather round all who care about the state of our seas, and let’s figure out what just happened, and what it means for the Gulf and those who treasure it.
The first thing to note is that this proposal was pitched as if it had already happened. It has not. In fact these new protections will require brand new legislation—the Hauraki Gulf Marine Protection Bill—which might get its first reading before Parliament rises for the election. Or it might not. Either way, it needs to endure public consultation, attacks from a raft of lobbyists and interest groups who do not want to change their behaviour, and select committees. Should it survive that process, it will need to be supported by a new government after an election that may or may not contain the same players as those who thought it was a good idea before the election.
History suggests that legislation carried from one government to the next is readily ditched as a new government attempts to stake out new territory in a new way. This is not a done deal.
The second thing to note is that marine protection comes in many flavours—from high protection, to seafloor protection, to no protection at all. Science demonstrates that only high protection results in ecosystem recovery. Seafloor protection leaves the bottom intact, but you can catch every last fish in the water column above it. Protection also exists for a fibre-optic cable that connects us to the world—though the ecosystem around it isn’t particularly special we afford that thing 9 per cent of the area of the Gulf, and government counts that among the 18 per cent proposed.
So the only area that is actually protected from human impacts for the benefit of the ecosystem, the part where this new legislation can stop or reverse catastrophic decline, are the bits labelled “high protection”. (This is also the only part which meets international standards that New Zealand has already committed to under the Convention on Biological Diversity, among other obligations.)
So, how big is that bit? Right now it is 0.3 per cent of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. And under Wednesday’s announcement the areas will total 6 per cent. That is a huge victory for biodiversity, but it’s not the same as the “18 per cent” advertised by government.
The elephant in the room is bottom-trawling, arguably the most environmentally destructive practice in the Gulf and the subject of protest from recreational fishers and conservationists alike. There are few trawlers still working within the Hauraki Gulf and the new legislation will not greatly reduce trawl activity. Instead, it will concentrate trawling into areas which are already stuffed by trawling. But the location, size and definition of the trawl ‘corridors’ were negotiated behind closed doors with scientists and conservationists pitched against the most powerful fishing companies and their in-house scientists.
Why tolerate destructive fishing within a national park of the sea? Well, that was the question pitched to the minister.
Like a half-back facing a marauding winger, Hipkins lined up the touch line and punted the problem into the deep future; “Broader conversations about bottom-trawling are ongoing,” he said, and, deftly summoning some vague assurances, “so the fact that we’ve made this particular decision here does not necessarily take off the table future discussion about bottom-trawling in all areas, but we will deal with that everywhere rather than in isolation.”
Will the new protected areas fix our kina barrens, deal with invasive Caulerpa, or improve fishing in adjacent waters? Yes, no, and eventually.
We know that fully protected areas eventually fully recover, even from the plight of kina barrens—vast expanses of rock where kina have run amok, demolishing the kelp, without being controlled by crayfish or large snapper which are now missing from the environment. Without help, this process takes about 30 years. But the new reserves will allow for more active conservation efforts, which may include methods to control kina while waiting for snapper and crayfish populations to rebuild—methods which have proven to accelerate kelp regrowth to just a year or two.
Invasive Caulerpa weed that is now carpeting swathes of Aotea/Great Barrier, northern Waiheke, Ahuahu/Great Mercury and the Bay of Islands does not respect marine reserve boundaries, and while a healthy marine environment can be expected to fare better than a compromised one, protections will not offer immunity. The incursion of this weed has been met with a weak response from MPI, and now two years in we have lots of signs on beaches, a strategy of ‘aggressive monitoring’, but still no National Management Plan. In the meantime, the infestations at Aotea have expanded from a few square metres in extent to a few hectares.
“There is a feeling among many of us that Biosecurity New Zealand gave up too easily and gave little consideration to the economic, social and environmental consequences of doing nothing,” writes Barry Scott in his editorial for Environment News, noting that California had mounted a successful response to the same invader within 17 days of detection. A similar outbreak in the Mediterranean resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in fish life within six years.
It appears that agencies here feel protected by New Zealand’s relative isolation. We are not equipped for invaders, we do not prioritise marine biosecurity and we are ill-prepared for the changed that warming seas will bring to these shores. This week’s announcements do little to improve that.
Will marine protections improve fishing in adjacent waters? The answer is yes, eventually, but immediately, no.
The purpose of marine protection is primarily for the benefit of the protected area. Sites that have been protected in the past have increased snapper abundance more than 700 per cent inside reserve boundaries within four to seven years. Fish egg production increases 18-fold over the same period. Those benefits radiate far beyond the boundaries of the reserve, increasing the abundance of fish in adjacent waters.
It will take a few years, and in the intervening period, those fishers displaced from the protected area will fish in adjacent waters. This ‘displaced effort’ has worried many, especially where there are vulnerable ecosystems at the fringes of the reserves, but scientists point out that increasing effort in a depauperate fishery doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in catch, and in any case, snapper in these fished-out locations are largely transitory in behaviour, rather than big resident snapper you get on healthy reefs.
Protections should eventually improve fishing in the Gulf, but these protected areas are small, they need to be considered as a network, and we haven’t really done that in the New Zealand context before.
Is it enough to halt the collapse of the Hauraki Gulf? Science would suggest that these measures are a day late and a dollar short—compromised by the time taken in stakeholder engagement and diluted by the demands of the stakeholders themselves. However, the marine protected areas are unquestionably centred on the biodiversity hotspots of the Gulf. Even if they’re not the right size, they are in the right place. Like oases in a desert they will become sentinel sites that can be expanded upon as they prove effective.
Tonight the Hauraki Gulf Forum gathers at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron to release the seventh ‘State of the Gulf’ report, a sobering tri-annual account of everything we know about the health of Tikapa Moana-Te Moana a Toi. In 2023 the authors note an 82 per cent decrease in scallops, 62 per cent of seabirds at risk, a number of fish stocks well below the minimum levels designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishery. It also paints a dark picture of the future, predicting lethal heat waves, stronger storms, land inundation and increased coastal erosion as the ocean warms.
Forum Co-Chair Toby Adams grimly presaged the report: “Seabirds struggling to feed their young, the near loss of our last scallop beds, uncontrolled kina devouring our kelp, and the rise in milky-flesh snapper are just some of the stories that have emerged over the past three years since the last report in 2020, pointing to continued ecological collapse.”
But for the first time this parade of bad news takes on a new complexion. These new protections put us “on the cusp” of change, the report promises. And tonight, 23 long years since the establishment of the Marine Park, visitors can finally celebrate arriving at the start line of our journey to recovery. The race for the Gulf is about to begin.