An unbroken line

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Down in southern Te Waipounamu where I’m from, before European contact the fishing grounds had names. Tau-o-te-kāeaea, a reef where rays congregated. Hāpuka, off Ōraka where, well, hāpuka were caught. We fished from waka and earned mana serving abundant catches. Access was managed via whānau and hapū rights; in some areas these wakawaka, or allocations, stand today. We told stories about fishing, and at times fought wars over fishing rights.

Later generations went to sea in sealing and whaling boats. Parties traversed Fiordland in ‘Maori boats’—big enough to pull up the beach and sleep under. From the 1940s, Ōtākou Fisheries ran 50 boats out of every port from Tīmaru to Jackson’s Bay. We were there in the southern crayfish boom of the 50s and 60s. My cousins ran cray boats in Fiordland more recently. Customary harvests overlapped with commercial activities throughout.

This unbroken whakapapa of fishing only exists thanks to endless fights to preserve small scraps of the exclusive and undisturbed access to fisheries all iwi were promised under the Treaty. It’s a shadow of the rich fishing that should have been guaranteed. But the fishing grounds still have their names.

The biggest recent fight was the Māori Fisheries Settlement. Local rights mutated into something more abstract: tribal entities ended up owning quota atomised across all of Aotearoa’s waters—though the end goal of providing for the people remains the same. Proceeds help capitalise other iwi businesses, and fund programmes promoting health, wellbeing and culture. That’s the kai that fisheries put on Māori tables today.

So, when proposals for marine sanctuaries arrive that bear no resemblance to Māori concepts, or undermine connections to place, or are announced unilaterally at the UN to score political points, or seen as further eroding Treaty rights, or walking back previous commitments, it’s not surprising they’re rejected by iwi. That’s what just happened to the latest Government offer for a Kermadecs Ocean Sanctuary—a complex story we explore.

But that isn’t the end of the conversation. It can’t be. There is overwhelming evidence that our oceans are in serious decline, that environmental disasters disproportionately affect indigenous communities, and that marine protection works—scientifically.

What’s needed is to figure out how it can work culturally, and be co-designed in a way that doesn’t further dispossess indigenous peoples.

From what we can understand from the outside, the iwi representatives who rejected the Crown’s Kermadecs proposal didn’t see it as an ending either. There was general support for marine protection, and another hui is in the works to begin figuring out what that might look like, starting from Māori first principles.

We can only guess at some of the ideas that will be on the table, but they could include concepts of Papatūānuku or Tangaroa rather than ‘the environment’. It could include restraining fishing using time-based, reviewable rāhui rather than perpetual closures, or buying out and retiring quota to honour the Fisheries Settlement. It could mean prioritising rangatiratanga and connection to place, customary harvesting, or whānau involvement in monitoring and ranger jobs. It could involve scientific research and partnerships, and make use of decades of hard-won knowledge about what’s worked elsewhere—including the fact that protected areas boost overall fish stocks and catch rates.

Whatever form this takes, it has to enhance the mana of our oceans, and all peoples. It also has to be done urgently.

While no new rāhui or protected areas are implemented, oceans remain in freefall.

We hope the Māori fisheries representatives who gathered in Wellington in June use their rangatiratanga to drive this forward, take on the best science, and figure it out.

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