Kennedy Warne

Goat Island revisited

The creation of New Zealand’s first marine reserve in 1977 was a bold scientific experiment and a test of public opinion. Editor Kennedy Warne revisited the reserve to see what effect protection has had.

Written by       Photographed by Kennedy Warne

It is hard not to feel self-conscious as I walk down Goat Island beach clutching mask, snorkel and fins in one hand and two pieces of left-over salami in the other. Considering the hundred or so suavely decked out divers who have shuttled between the car-park and the sea all day long, with tanks, regulators, thick wetsuits and all the other scuba paraphernalia I must look faintly ridiculous in my faded shorts and winter-glare torso. It is, after all, only October, and the water a sobering 15 degrees.

I have come back to Goat Island after ten years to see what changes a decade of protection has brought. It was in 1978 that I last dived here. The “Cape Rodney to Okakari Point Marine Reserve” had been operational for one year, but its existence meant little to me. I was only interested in collecting sponge specimens as part of a thesis on the classification of these primitive animals.

As I ease myself into the water I recall a single, vivid mental image of that earlier dive: wall-to-wall sea eggs and hardly a fish in sight. The voracious sea urchins seemed to own the place then; at least, they dominated the upper five or six metres, which was the area I was interested in. Would anything have changed?

I clear my snorkel and look around. Almost immediately, there they are. Not sea eggs, fish. Big fish. Up to 10 kilogram fish, I’m told later. Snapper and kahawai, mostly, with the occasional leatherjacket or “triggerfish”, sometimes described as an underwater helicopter because of the way they hover in the water with their fins undulating. I dive to the bottom and hold on to a stalk of kelp while I wave my pieces of Italian Picante as alluringly as I can. Half a dozen snapper circle my hand, swimming to within 20cm and then away again. The sun glints off the turquoise spots that freckle their delicate pink sides. There are no takers. Are these fish getting too much of a good thing, I wonder. Have they become underwater gourmets?

I’m out of breath and must comeup for air. Looking back across Goat Island Channel I see the university’s marine lab framed in pohutukawas on the clifftop. It has stood in this commanding position since 1961 and been home to hundreds of marine biologists who have come to this special stretch of coastline to study its complex and fascinating habitats.

Moving slowly down the channel I try to take in the visual diversity below. Fronds of kelp conceal the brilliantly patterned kelpfish; on taller rock stacks bright green and red seaweeds waft with the current, with flashes of iridescent blue revealing the delicate stalks of the seaweed Champia; silver-sided kahawai swim powerfully by at eye level, and most spectacular of all, a huge black stingray stirs from its slumbers and glides off into the haze. This is a far cry from the urchin-covered rocks I recall from ten years ago. The sea eggs are still here, but amidst a profusion of other marine creatures.

And still I’m holding my wretched salami. I refuse to simply drop it; if they want it, they will have to come and get it. I don’t have long to wait. A large blue cod emerges from the kelp. With its bulbous, staring eyes and wide frowning mouth, it looks like it means business. There are no second thoughts with this fish. One gulp and my salami is gone, my fingers left tingling. As I swim away I feel something brush against my leg. Turning, I see the cod only inches away from my mask, with a look that definitely says “More!”

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The following day I’m back at Goat Island Bay to meet up with Dr Bill Ballantine, the person who has done more than anyone to make this ordinary piece of coast the major asset that it is today. Bill is just the same as I remember him when I was a student at the lab. Still as fanatical about his beloved limpets and barnacles; still as indefatigable a campaigner and educator concerning things marine; still as impatient with the public indifference and bureaucratic inertia that impedes the creation of more marine reserves around the country.

Bill Ballantine was the first resident biologist at the newly opened marine laboratory in 1965. He had come from England after completing his doctorate on rocky shore ecology (specifically, limpet population dynamics) with John Morton as his supervisor. Morton had been appointed professor of zoology at Auckland and had set about building a marine lab at Goat Island because of its richly varied habitats and its proximity to Auckland.

When Bill Ballantine arrived moves were already afoot to have the area protected as an “underwater national park.” But it was not until 13 years later, in 1977, that the necessary legislation had been put in place and all the objections overcome. It was a long-drawn-out battle and one that Ballantine remembers with feeling; it was not without some personal cost that he campaigned for the “nil exploitation” clause that has set this reserve apart from all others. In this regard he was a lone voice. Others considered recreational fishing in the reserve should be allowable; Ballantine said no. He argued that without total protection no one would ever know the effects of even light recreational fishing.

He remembers one occasion after he had been grilled for six hours by the Attorney General, who had come to personally ask him to reconsider his stand: “I went up to visit Roddy Matheson (the landowner on whose property the marine laboratory was built) to clear my head. We had a talk about the weather and this and that, and as I was about to leave he said, `You know, I’d like my grandchildren to see how it used to be’. He was referring to the days when you could pluck crayfish out of the rock pools. That was all he said, but on the strength of that I fought them tooth and nail.”

Ballantine won, and today Goat Island marine reserve is regarded as a success, both here and internationally. The fishermen benefit from it; the scientists enthuse over it, the conservationists congratulate themselves on it and the public simply enjoy it. Fish stocks have regenerated, crayfish have boomed, paua are on the increase and the ecologically important kelp forests are expanding. Virtually none of the predictions made about the reserve has come true. Bill Ballantine wryly recalls a headline which appeared in the local newspaper soon after the reserve was established: “Nothing to do at Goat Island Bay any more.” Ballantine: “The implication was that red-blooded Kiwis wouldn’t go there unless they could kill things. Well, they’ve been proved quite wrong because thousands of people come here each year simply because they can see far more fish far more closely than anywhere else in New Zealand.”

In fact, the reserve has become far too popular. “Instead of spearos coming in and slaughtering the fish we now have hundreds of trainee divers bringing bits of sausage to feed them. The fish have become diver-positive and this creates its own problems in trying to determine what is their normal behaviour and what is influenced by humans. The ordinary diver can get a rather distorted impression if he has fish banging on his facemask looking for a meal.”

Because of its proximity to Auckland and the fact that it is the site of the University of Auckland’s marine laboratory, Goat Island and the surrounding area is probably the most studied, most dived piece of coastline in the country. It is certainly the most thoroughly mapped. Between 1975 and 1979 Dr Tony Ayling, a marine biologist working at the laboratory, co-ordinated a massive under underwater cartography project that involved 3000 hours of diving. Combined with aerial photography and a shore survey, the final result has been published by the Department of Survey and Land Information as a set of three 1:2000 scale maps which show no less than 18 different intertidal and subtidal habitats.

These maps underline an important feature of the reserve: its tremendous diversity. Just as on land each habitat has its own unique flora and fauna, underwater habitats are distinguishable by the organisms found within them. The fish which live among the stalks and holdfasts (“roots”) of kelp are different from those which swim above it and in the fronds. These differ again from fish which inhabit the open waters.

The occurrence of seaweeds is largely determined by the fall-off in light intensity that occurs with increasing depth. Again, as on land, grazing animals have a controlling influence on the distribution of some plants. The relationship between kelp and sea eggs is one such example. Sea eggs graze over rocks in the habitat known as “rock flats”, grinding up everything they come across with their powerful teeth. Any small kelp sporelings in their path will be devoured. In this area kelp can only establish itself by attaching to sloping rocks where sea eggs cannot maintain their hold. Even if kelp does manage to grow to maturity, it is still not safe from the ravages of the sea egg, which is capable of felling adult plants by gnawing through the trunk. On occasions divers have observed large groups of sea eggs “going ape” and destroying large stands of kelp. No one knows what causes this behaviour.

The sea eggs themselves are probably controlled by larger predators such as crayfish, starfish and fish. It’s all a matter of balance: the areas the sea eggs graze are nursery grounds for fish, including snapper, which keep the sea eggs in check. Now that the fish stocks have been replenished in the reserve, sea egg numbers are down and kelp has been able to recolonise areas from which it had earlier been eliminated.

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New zealand has two marine reserves and three marine parks, all in the North Island. This difference in terminology reflects the legislative route through which the areas were set aside. Marine parks came into being via harbours and fisheries legislation; marine reserves through the Marine Reserves Act 1971, which itself was set up primarily for the Goat Island reserve.

The five protected areas vary in the level of exploitation they allow. Goat Island has total protection of all organisms within its boundaries: no fishing, no removal of animals and no disturbance. The Poor Knights, described with some sarcasm by Bill Ballantine as “the grand compromise”, allows limited fishing for certain species around some, but not allof the islands. Tawharanui, Mimiwhangata and the Sugarloaf have their own rules relating to species which can or cannot be taken, and the limits of each. At Tawharanui protection is virtually total, while at the other two it is relatively weak.

The responsibility for creating marine reserves now rests with the Department of Conservation. DOC “inherited” the Marine Reserves Act from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, together with a report proposing at least 30 locations which should be considered for marine reserve status.

Two of those locations, the Kermadec Islands and Lottin Point, have been the subject of recent work by DOC staff and marine biologists to assess their potential as “marine protected areas”—a term the Department favours in that it encompasses both reserves and parks.

The Kermadecs, a tiny cluster of islands halfway between New Zealand and Tonga in roughly the same latitude as Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands, are the closest this country comes to a true subtropical habitat. Not surprisingly, much of the underwater flora and fauna of the Kermadecs is quite different from that encountered anywhere else in New Zealand, and the fact that the islands lie on the boundary of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates gives them considerable geographic importance. An absence of heavy commercial fishing pressure on the area means that the island’s marine wildlife remains close to its natural state and by pressing for a protected status under law, the Department hopes to keep it that way.

Lottin Point, situated between Cape Runaway and East Cape, is remarkable in having many of the characteristics of an offshore island, even though it is connected to the mainland. Unlike the Kermadecs, which are uninhabited apart from a few meteorological staff, the Lottin Point area is an important part of the local, predominantly Maori, community. Discussions relating to the establish‑ment of a marine protected area must therefore proceed slowly, with all parties getting the chance to have their say. Even so, Tony Seymour of DOC Gisborne says that interest is high and, given the success of Goat Island, many of the locals are in favour of having a piece of their coastline protected as well. They speak of giving the “mana of the sea” back to the community.

One of the first steps Seymour took in floating the idea with the local tribes was to have marine biologist and photographer Kim Westerskov make a photographic record of the Lottin Point region both above and below the waterline. “We particularly wanted to show people what a spectacular place it is under the water,” he said. “Here we have two major ocean currents swinging close inshore and creating the kind of underwater communities you usually only find at the Poor Knights or Alderman Island.”

Oceanic water with up to 100 feet of visibility and heavy wave action are partly responsible for the occurrence of species such as the black angelfish, bull kelp and a small vermetid mollusc not found elsewhere on this coast. With its deep rock pools sunk into basalt platforms, highly divable waters and good road access, Seymour describes the area as having “the right feel — the kind of marine reserve we’re looking for.”

Both Lottin Point and the Kermadec Islands are “special” areas; their uniqueness is in itself an argument for a protected status. What Bill Ballantine and others are pushing for is the protection of representative portions of our coastline, areas that are accessible to the public and typical of a certain marine habitat. The figure of 10 per cent has been put forward by Ballantine as a “reasonable insurance against specific greed and general ignorance.” This would mean that 1000km out of New Zealand’s 10,000km coastline would be conserved in its present form as a hedge against over-exploitation and a guarantee that the other 90 per cent can be sustained at current levels of usage. Given that at present less than 20km is protected, we still have a long way to go.

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