At issue was the reserve’s no-take status. This stretch of sea was to be totally free from human interference. That meant no line fishing. No spearfishing. No hooking a lobster out of its lair. No prying off a clump of rock oysters. No reason, as far as the newspaper was concerned, for any red-blooded, outdoors-loving Kiwi man, woman or child to bother coming to Goat Island any more.
Ballantine, 70, bespectacled, a trim man with thinning grey hair and a stubby white beard, takes a pull on his cigarette. He sits at the dining table of his cottage on Goat Island Road, a kilometre back from the bay. He has lived here since he emigrated from England in 1965 to take up the post of director at the newly opened University of Auckland Marine Laboratory, which stands on a promontory overlooking Goat Island. As a marine biology student in the 1970s I used to see him kneeling on the rocky shore at low tide, studying his beloved limpets, putting his small measure of knowledge towards an understanding of the vast mystery of the sea.
The road was a gravel track in those days, as rutted as a washboard. Now it has been widened, straightened, and sealed all the way to the beach to accommodate the constant stream of visitors to a place where there is “nothing to do any more.”
“No one predicted what happened here,” says Ballantine. “More than a hundred thousand people a year coming to look at fish—who saw that coming? Nobody. Fifteen years ago, if you had suggested that entire school classes would be put into wetsuits and taken into the water here you would have been laughed at. Now it’s routine.”
School field trips by the hundred. Legions of weekend snorkelers. Glass-bottom boat tours for those who prefer to stay dry. A marine education centre. None of it was foreseen, either by the university, which proposed the reserve as a place to do marine research, or the nearby fishing and farming community of Leigh, which was split over the idea from the start.
The battle lines were drawn as early as 1965, when Ballantine invited a group of commercial fishermen to the lab and floated his idea for a reserve closed to fishing. He remembers the reaction well: “Half of them said, ‘No problem,’ and the other half said, ‘We’ll kill you.’”
The supporters could see no harm in letting the scientists have an undisturbed environment in which to conduct their experiments. Detractors could see only the loss of a fishing ground. Twelve years later the community was still divided. Few locals showed up at the official opening. Rumours were rife, including one which claimed the marine lab was being used as a secret sonar transmission station to help the US navy track Russian submarines.
What transformed public opinion were the changes that happened underwater—changes that took everyone, including Ballantine and his fellow scientists, by surprise. In the 1970s, divers at the marine lab noticed that large swaths of reef in Goat Island Bay were barren, their seaweed communities grazed to a stubble by the common sea urchin, or kina. These underwater lawnmowers, prickly as hedgehogs, had exploded in numbers because their chief predators—snapper and spiny rock lobsters—had been fished down to low levels. Packs of kina marauded in slow-munching motion across the rocks, and even climbed up kelp trunks and gnawed through them like beavers.
When fishing ceased, the imbalance between predators and prey began reversing almost immediately. Kina numbers dropped. Kelp grew back. Snapper, once wary and rare, became abundant and fearless, and a thicket of crayfish feelers waved from the rock crevices. Word of this ecological revival soon spread, and the world beat a path to Goat Island’s shore.
Snapper and crayfish have been two of the ecological surprises of Goat Island and other New Zealand marine reserves. For reasons not fully understood, when areas are closed to fishing, snapper aggregate within them, forming large resident populations. Spiny rock lobsters (crayfish in common parlance) do the same. The density of both species inside the reserve ranges between 10 and 20 times higher than outside.
Some of the crayfishermen who opposed the reserve have cashed in on its success, because the outward migration of adult crayfish—a process marine biologists call spillover—brings the crustaceans to their pots, placed strategically just outside the reserve boundary. These former sceptics are now some of the reserve’s staunchest defenders, referring to it as “our reserve” and acting as marine minutemen, reporting poachers and boundary cheats.
Spillover, and a similar process known as larval export— the drifting of millions of eggs and larvae beyond the reserve which Ballantine calls the “thistledown effect”—have become central concepts in marine conservation. Reserves where fishing is banned are considered to function as underwater stud farms and hatcheries, replenishing the surrounding seas. Some of the strongest evidence for this replenishment effect has come from research at Goat Island—work made possible by the fact that the reserve has been closed to fishing for 30 years.
Goat Island was revolutionary not just because it was one of the world’s first no-take reserves, but also because it protected an ordinary stretch of coastline. In true Kiwi egalitarian spirit, the legislation enacted in 1971 to create marine reserves declared that its purpose was to preserve the typical as well as the unique, and that such preservation was in the national interest.
Of course it was in the national interest. Located in the middle of the water hemisphere, with a coastline greater in length than that of the contiguous US, and the world’s fourth largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ), New Zealand is indisputably one of the most maritime nations on earth. The country had been a world leader in developing land reserves; now it was time to do the same for the sea.
Given the success of Goat Island, one might assume the rollout of further marine reserves around the country would have been rapid and decisive. It wasn’t. For the next three decades Ballantine would continue to square off against stubborn anglers, reluctant bureaucrats and fence-sitting scientists.
There was a setback with the very next reserve application, over the Poor Knights Islands (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 78). While Goat Island had been a representative piece of coastline, the Poor Knights Islands, 12 nautical miles off the Northland coast, were special—magnificently so. Rated one of the world’s top subtropical dive sites, the islands would seem to have been the perfect candidate for reserve protection. Astonishingly, the legislation crafted to protect habitats containing “underwater scenery, natural features, or marine life of such distinctive quality… or so beautiful, or unique, that their continued preservation is in the national interest”—a description that could have been written specifically for the Poor Knights—was amended to downgrade that protection.
Pressure from recreational fishing interests was the reason. The islands were a favourite destination for anglers and supported a strong game-fishing fleet. Anglers strenuously objected to having such prized fishing grounds declared off-limits. And so began what Ballantine calls “the grand compromise”, in which commercial fishing was banned but recreational fishing for the most popular species was permitted.
To Ballantine it was a travesty. The act of parliament that sanctified ordinary Goat Island now denied the iconic Poor Knights its chance for ecological redemption. Seventeen years of jousting would elapse before the recreational-fishing provision was removed and full protection was conferred on the beleaguered Knights.
To be fair, few realised the extent to which recreational fishing damages marine ecosystems and suppresses their recovery. Commercial fishing, with its capacity to scoop up whole schools in a single trawl or deploy thousands of hooks in a night, was perceived to be the enemy—not a bunch of weekend anglers trying to catch a feed. It was only as fish numbers dwindled and species started to disappear that the severity of the problem was recognised.
A curious thing happens when fish stocks decline: people who aren’t aware of the old levels begin to accept the new ones as normal. Memories fade. Stories of the “good old days” are forgotten. Over generations, societies adjust their expectations downward to match the prevailing conditions—a phenomenon known as “shifting baseline syndrome”. The concept of a healthy ocean drifts from greater to lesser abundance, richer to poorer biodiversity.
Marine reserves are the antidote to this collective amnesia. They provide a scientific benchmark against which changes in the wider ocean—the exploited ocean—can be measured. Without them, says Ballantine, there is no way of assessing the impact of the global experiment called fishing. “If nothing is left intact or pristine, how can you know that damage has occurred?” he asks. Indeed, how do you even imagine an undamaged state? In time, all that is left are “ghost ecosystems” that lack so many of their original features it is impossible to know how they functioned.
Seen in this light, marine reserves are the reference collections of the sea, or, as pioneer diver and underwater naturalist Wade Doak likes to call them, “wet libraries”. Like libraries on land, they should be regarded as essential public amenities. And, as the Poor Knights experience shows, they must be fully protected. Allowing fishing in a marine reserve makes as much sense as allowing the most popular books in the library to be borrowed and never returned.
Doak dreams of the day when establishing marine reserves around the country becomes as intuitive and automatic as building a school in a new residential area, or opening a medical clinic, or planting a park; when the “not-in-our-backyard” opposition of fishermen is drowned out by public demand for healthy marine ecosystems that are accessible to all and preserved for all.
We’re not there yet. So far, the acquisition of marine reserves in New Zealand has been glacially slow, acrimonious and anything but automatic. Most of the impetus has come from community groups: dive clubs, conservation organisations, residents’ groups, a Maori tribe, even a group of high school students. It has been do-it-yourself conservation; a good deal of it inspired by Ballantine’s dogged campaigning.
During the late 1980s, he travelled throughout the country, holding weekend adult-education courses for anyone who was interested. “The subject was marine studies, but everything was oriented to making marine reserves,” he says. “Several small groups sprang up as a result, and some of those groups went on to propose reserves, and a few of those proposals were successful. This is the way it has been with marine-reserve proposals in New Zealand—something comes of some of them sometimes. I wish there were a better story, but there isn’t—yet.”
Ballantine blames the slow progress on political inertia. Bottom-up citizen enthusiasm, he says, hasn’t been matched by top-down government initiative. “There is nothing in the government’s marine-reserve policy that says that anything should be started anywhere at any time,” he says. “So who do you depend on to get more marine reserves? The public. Well, that’s all right for the first five, or ten, or even fifteen reserves. But once you’ve talked about marine reserves for 40 years, and had one for 30 years, no. Once you’ve created 30 of them, it’s just laughable.”
Never short of a quip, Ballantine likens the creation of a marine reserve to a drunk trying to get a key into a lock: “You have to be sober enough to be at the right door and be holding the right key, but beyond that it’s just persistence.”
It took 14 years of persistence for the students of Warren Farrelly’s senior geography class at Kamo High School, in Northland, to gain a marine reserve in their local harbour. More than a thousand students were involved, exploring potential sites, holding public meetings, raising funds and negotiating the twists and turns of the application process. To reflect the diversity of marine environments within the harbour, a network of three sites was proposed: an area of rocky shoreline and reefs around Motukaroro/Aubrey Island, near the harbour mouth, an expanse of mangrove wetland near Whangarei airport and an adjacent area of shallow mudflats surrounding Limestone Island.
What started in 1990 as a class project in geographical management soon overflowed into other subject areas. Maths classes analysed public-opinion surveys, media-studies classes wrote press releases and art students produced illustrations for a children’s book on marine reserves. Each graduating class passed the torch to the next year’s intake, until in 2005 Whangarei Harbour Marine Reserve became a reality. It is believed to be the first no-take marine reserve in the world to have been proposed and designed by school students.
Farrelly, retired now but still a keen diver and underwater photographer, is proud of what was achieved by his students, some of whom, he told me, “had never even stuck their heads in the water before.” Several have gone on to pursue marine or environmental studies at university.
Samara Sutherland, from the class of ’98, co-founded a school education programme called “Experiencing Marine Reserves”, an initiative that won her two leadership awards (including the Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader Award in 2006) and for which she was voted Northland’s Young Person of the Year.
At a summer snorkelling day in the newly opened reserve at Motukaroro, I watched her giving instructions to a group of excited children decked out with zingy wetsuits, dive masks and flutterboards. She sent them off like ducklings, half a dozen trailing a parent, to the nearby reefs, where leatherjackets, seahorses and anemones awaited discovery. One youngster dipped her face under water, popped up and squealed, “I saw a fish! I saw a fish!”
In a school essay explaining her hopes for the marine reserve, Sutherland had written: “We want a place where our children can stand in the mangrove mud, touch the kelp, feel the spikes of the crayfish and watch the schools of fish swim by, instead of just reading about these experiences in books and seeing them on television.” Here was that place, a brand new library of the sea.
Yes, but a library only half its intended size. Of the three sites put forward in the reserve application, only two were approved. Limestone Island, the site most popular with fishers, was removed from consideration at the eleventh hour by conservation officials with no stomach for a fight.
“The rationale for including Limestone Island,” Farrelly explained to me, “was that the adjacent coast, where any kid with a line can go fishing, without needing a boat, would become replenished”. Also, according to orca expert Ingrid Visser, Limestone Island is a prime area for orca to hunt stingrays, and having a no-take reserve would ensure they didn’t get snagged in fishing nets.
Opposition from anglers and iwi scuppered the reserve. One fisher, says Farrelly, threatened to set fire to the island’s vegetation if the reserve went through.
The cave-in infuriated Ballantine. As he saw it, the Department of Conservation had been handed the reserve on a plate. “This was a school they were dealing with. All the usual rules of political appeasement and compromise don’t apply. Yet they took the biggest bit out. The people we pay to make marine reserves shafted it.”
For the students, it was a bitter lesson in political expediency and a reminder of the strength of the anti-reserve lobby, which regards marine reserves not as libraries but as lock-ups; not as a community asset but as a stolen resource. This constituency, whose most vocal members are recreational fishers, lambasts the “reserve-making juggernaut” that steamrolls its way over the wishes of the humble fisherman, robbing him of his recreational space and denying his God-given right to toss a line in the water wherever he pleases.
New Zealand may have led the world in the development of no-take reserves, but three decades on, many of its citizens continue to resent their existence and dispute their worth.
Not so the commercial crayfishermen of Fiordland, who voluntarily vacated prime lobster-fishing waters around New Zealand’s largest national park and instigated the creation of a network of protected areas. They had seen the depletion of coastal waters elsewhere in the country, and wanted to safeguard their own backyard. Ten no-take reserves and five no anchoring areas now preserve underwater communities so vulnerable to damage that scientists have dubbed them “china shops.”
Many of the biological treasures found in these sites are there due to a stroke of hydrological serendipity. Tanninstained fresh water flowing into the fiords from the adjacent rainforest forms a light-blocking layer a metre or more thick that floats on the denser seawater. The presence of this layer allows normally light-shy species such as black coral, lamp shells and sea pens to live at much shallower depths than usual, and it is these “deep-water emergents,” as marine biologists describe them, that make Fiordland’s underwater realm so distinctive.
Descending into the depths of the fiords is like landing through smog in an aircraft. For a few unnerving seconds you are diving blind, barely able to see your hands, let alone your companions, in the brown “lager layer,” as charter boat skipper Lance Shaw calls the freshwater blanket. A couple of metres down, at the mixing point between fresh and salt, the water starts to shimmer like a mirage. Your eyes won’t focus. Everything is a blur. Then, like Alice through the looking glass, you emerge into a twilight world of crystal clarity.
Projecting from the fiord walls are three-metre-tall black coral trees—slow-growing organisms that can live for 300 years or more. Butterfly perch shoal among their feathery branches like Christmas-tree ornaments. Snake stars—sulphur yellow, burgundy or boldly striped like monarch caterpillars— wrap their arms tightly around twig and trunk. They seem to be trying to choke the coral, but in fact they benefit their host: at night their arms uncoil and the detritus-eating stars keep the coral polyps free from smothering sediment.
Wax ascidians—sponge-like encrustations—drip down the rock faces like melting candles. A pea green sea slug the size of a grapefruit rests in corpulent splendour on a boulder. Arrays of sea pens, a type of soft coral, stand on the seabed like some kind of alien installation. The gracefully arching quills, in shades of orange or white, orient themselves at right angles to the tidal flow so that their arms are best placed to sieve particles from the current. Cruising among them are nosy, in-your-face blue cod, wearing perpetual frowns on their frog-eyed noggins. They nip the fingers of my gloves; perhaps they mistake them for sea cucumbers.
In some fiords the seabed is peppered with ancient relatives of molluscs called brachiopods, or lamp shells. At a site known as Strawberry Fields, beds of plump, pimply, scarlet sea squirts turn the rocks into an underwater fruit bowl.
Fiordland’s underwater world is a manifestly extraordinary place, yet one that for years has been compromised by human activity. Lance Shaw, a longtime Cray fisherman turned eco-cruise operator, shudders when he thinks of the damage the big steel cray pots did as they were lowered down the walls, crushing whatever was in their path until they landed on a suitable ledge. “When I started diving and saw what was living on the walls I thought, what have we done?”
Although it was commercial fishers such as Shaw who initiated the protection of the fiords, the final reserve network was put in place by a stakeholder group representing fishing interests, tourism operators, Maori, conservationists and marine scientists. The group, calling itself Guardians of Fiordland’s Fisheries and Marine Environment, hammered out an agreement whereby commercial fishers would work exclusively outside the fiords, while recreational fishers would accept substantially reduced bag limits for the species they target, with no fishing at all in the ten reserves. The resulting accord is regarded as a model of common-sense, community-based marine protection—a blueprint for other communities that want to save their seas.
Roaming the underwater aisles of Fiordland’s china shops, you sense the preciousness of the stock and realise how easily it could have been lost. A dappled octopus fingers its way across a bed of frothy red seaweed. Feather duster worms wave flamboyant parasol gills that vanish in the blink of an eye if the animal is disturbed. The exquisite Jason mirabilis—a dainty mauve sea slug with soft white spines along its back—grazes on a tuft of bryozoan. I found a circular-saw mollusc—a species I had only ever seen as a dead shell.
After dark, night fish such as needle-toothed moray eels come out of their crevices while day fish either hide or change colour. Butterfly perch—salmon pink in the daytime, with a large dark spot near the tail—become maroon at night, and the spot turns lighter than the surrounding skin, almost a negative image of their daylight appearance. Constantly on the move during the day, at night they find nooks among the rocks where they sleep, sometimes sideways or even upside down.
Fiordland’s marine reserves and a handful of others have brought New Zealand’s tally of no-take zones to 31, covering nearly eight per cent of the country’s coastal waters. In addition, there are several maritime parks, a marine mammal sanctuary, and a variety of other areas of partial protection. The government’s millennium target to have 10 per cent of marine environment under some form of protection by 2010 appears to be within reach.
The reality, however, is not quite as rosy as the figures suggest. Ninety-nine per cent of the fully protected area lies within just two reserves, each hundreds of kilometres from the mainland. The smallest of our 14 terrestrial national parks protects an area greater than all the coastal marine reserves combined. Yes, New Zealand has led the world in marine protection, says Ballantine, but what is there to cheer about “if you’re leading in a race of arthritic tortoises?”
For the past six years, the government has been revisiting its marine conservation policy and legislation. A draft new marine reserves bill was introduced to parliament in 2002 (it has yet to be passed), and a new marine protected area (MPA) policy was released in 2005, which purports to provide “an integrated process for establishing a network of MPAs around New Zealand.” In the past, states the policy document, “the approach to marine protection has been fragmented.” The new policy seeks to plug gaps in the existing network based on habitat and ecosystem criteria.
The importance of a strategic approach to reserve selection is indisputable. Marine habitats are extremely diverse, shaped by an array of physical factors such as currents, wave exposure, substrate, water temperature, salinity and more. Even a cursory visit to our existing reserves reveals this diversity. Ulva Island reserve showcases the dazzling variety of Stewart Island’s seaweeds. Long Island reserve, in the Marlborough Sounds, is a haven for blue cod. Motukaroro has spectacular growths of jewel anemones. Parininihi, on the Taranaki coast, is a sponge hotspot.
Each site has its own ecological flavour, its own combi nation of permanent residents—and its surprises. During a dive at one of the newer reserves, Glenduan, which protects part of the Nelson boulder bank, I observed a starfish behaviour I had never seen before. Cushion stars, bright mango orange in colour, appeared to stand on tiptoe, on the very tips of their five arms, while lifting the webbing between the arms off the rock. They had the appearance of five-sided tents with the flaps raised. This turns out to be a hunting technique. When a creature walks or crawls under the “tent” the sides drop down and trap the victim inside.
How many idiosyncratic marine phenomena remain to be discovered? Clearly, as each distinct ecosystem or bioregion is identified it needs to be adequately represented within a conservation network, and government policy recognises this imperative. But Ballantine remains sceptical about the government’s commitment to press ahead with its marine agenda. Several reserve proposals have been stuck in political limbo for years, and the situation doesn’t look like improving any time soon.
What lessons, then, does New Zealand’s 40-year experience of marine reserves offer the rest of the world? “New Zealand has demonstrated that highly protected marine reserves are practical and worthwhile,” says Ballantine. “Therefore other intelligent people, having witnessed that wheels should be round, or that women can have the vote without the sky falling, should just copy our idea.”
And so they have. Several huge MPAs have been created in the past five years, culminating in the opening in 2006 of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. Once fishing is phased out, this chunk of ocean one and-a-half times the size of New Zealand will be the largest no-take marine reserve in the world.
Even more important than the creation of one-off reserves has been the establishment of protected-area networks— combinations of no-take areas spaced to maximise their potential as marine stud farms and hatcheries and to replenish the surrounding seas. Designing such networks is one of the fastest-growing disciplines within marine conservation today. The idea is to protect representative portions of all marine habitats and ecosystems in all biogeographic regions, creating “blue oases” of sustainability throughout the oceans. Such networks take into account the habitat changes made by marine organisms during their lives. For example, by protecting areas of seagrass and mangrove (which function as fish nurseries) that are within adult-migration and larva-dispersal range of a coral reef, all stages of the life cycle of many reef fishes are safeguarded.
One such network was recently put in place in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, increasing the area under no-take protection from 4.5 to 33 per cent, with individual reserves covering some 70 distinct bioregions. California has just established a network of 29 reserves, half of which ban fishing, along its central coast, and plans to set up reserves along the entire state coastline by 2011.
Another positive development has been the extension of marine protection to the open ocean. In 2007 the New Zealand government created a network of protected areas spanning 1.2 million square kilometres of the nation’s deep sea—30 per cent of the EEZ. The 17 benthic protection areas (BPAs) that make up the network are off-limits to bottom trawling and dredging, in recognition of the destructiveness of these forms of fishing. (Scraping the seabed to catch fish has been likened to clearcutting the forest to catch deer.) Nearly half of New Zealand’s 250 seamounts—undersea islands that are likely bristling with undiscovered species—gain some protection under this measure, though midwater and surface organisms do not: fishing at these depths remains acceptable in the BPAs.
Critics of the new network, however, say it is of marginal conservation relevance. Most of the BPAs are beyond current trawlable depth (about a thousand metres), so protection is being conferred on environments that are not under threat. Currently trawled areas of biodiversity importance, by contrast, have been largely excluded from the network. In exchange for giving up areas of seabed that were not going to be fished anyway, the fishing industry gained a political reprieve: the government agreed to delay establishment of further MPAs in the EEZ until at least 2013—a decision made without public consultation, notes Ballantine, and with no reason given.
Despite the recent gains, only a meagre 0.1 per cent of the world’s oceans is off-limits to human exploitation. This is not just a problem for conservation; it is a problem for fisheries. Many fisheries scientists are now saying that traditional fisheries management techniques are incapable of achieving sustainable fisheries, and that ecosystem restoration is the only way to prevent the widespread collapse of fish stocks. The World Wildlife Fund has called for 20 per cent no-take protection of the world’s oceans by 2020. Some scientists have gone further, suggesting that 40 or 50 per cent closures may be necessary to prevent the commercial extinction of most currently fished species. It has even been suggested that to provide true long-term sustainability the seas should be closed to fishing, with small exceptions in time and place, and that the onus should be on fishers to prove their activities do not damage marine ecosystems, rather than on conservationists to prove the benefit of reserves.
In 2007, the United Nations Global Environmental Outlook painted a bleak picture of the world’s fisheries. Consumption of fish trebled between 1961 and 2001, while total catches have stagnated or slowly declined from the late 1980s, the report stated. Three-quarters of marine fisheries are exploited up to or beyond their maximum capacity, and 20 per cent of commercially fished stocks have crashed.
To avert further population collapses of the type that gutted the north Atlantic cod fishery, prominent fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly says fishing nations need to get serious about total marine protection, and abandon the current ineffective networks of marine parks and sanctuaries which allow fishing to persist. No-take reserves need to be perceived “not as scattered and small concessions to conservationist pressure, but as a legitimate and obvious [fisheries] management tool,” he writes.
There is no question that such networks benefit fisheries. The positive impact of no-take reserves is being observed wherever MPAs are being set up. In St Lucia, one of the Windward Isles of the Caribbean, a network of marine reserves was established in 1995 along an 11 km stretch of fish-depleted coastline. After seven years, the combined weight of commercially important fish species such as parrot fish, grouper and snapper had increased fivefold inside the reserves and trebled in adjacent fishing grounds through spillover. Dive tourism operators were happy because the reefs where their customers swam were once again crowded with colourful fish, and local fishers were happy because they caught bigger, better fish with less effort—a win–win for two community factions that had been at loggerheads.
For his part, Bill Ballantine is wary of using fisheries goals as the main reason for establishing marine reserves. Yes, marine reserves play a role in improving fisheries yields. Yes, they provide tourism and recreation opportunities, educate the public and expand scientific knowledge. But these utilitarian benefits are secondary, he says. The fundamental purpose of marine protection should be to restore ecosystems and rebuild biodiversity.
What Ballantine is arguing for is nothing less than a new ocean ethic, in which the marine environment is seen not as a commodity we own but a community of which we are a part. It’s a simple enough message: the sea is worth saving for its own sake.
Ballantine is not the first to advocate such a view. In 1957, a similar sentiment was expressed by the influential environmentalist Rachel Carson, who, though better known for her campaign against agricultural pesticides, was at heart a marine biologist. “Somewhere we should know what was nature’s way,” she wrote. “We should know what the earth would have been had not man interfered. And so, besides public parks for recreation, we should set aside some wilderness areas of sea shore where the relations of sea and wind and shore…remain as they have been over the long vistas of time in which man did not exist.”
Like Carson before him, the mollusc man from Goat Island Bay keeps chipping away at what he calls the three enemies of marine conservation: ignorance, indifference and inertia. It is a battle that has won him few friends among his professional colleagues, and made him a target for the country’s amateur fishing lobby.
“It has been a lonely and uncomfortable fight,” he told me during one of my visits to the cottage in Goat Island Road. “I’m never pessimistic to the point of giving up, or even slowing down. But I’m never so optimistic as to think common sense might suddenly break out.”
We were sitting at his kitchen table amid piles of scientific papers and a few half-read paperback novels. Ballantine’s wife Dulcie died in 1990, and he lives alone now, though students from the nearby marine lab drop in regularly. I asked him to recount a story he had told me 20 years ago, when I wrote about the Goat Island marine reserve in the very first issue of New Zealand Geographic—a story I had never forgotten. It concerned a visit he had had from the Attorney-General, late in the saga of the creation of the reserve, when Ballantine was under intense pressure to capitulate over his no-take stance. After his guest had left, Ballantine went up to see the farmer on whose land the marine laboratory had been built, to ask him whether he thought he was doing the right thing.
Roddy Matheson had lived all his life overlooking Goat Island. He remembered when crayfish in the bay were so abundant you could pick them out of the rock pools. “Roddy was never one for a quick answer,” Ballantine said, “so we had a cup of tea, discussed the grass growth, and rolled a cigarette or two. But as I got up to leave he said, ‘You know, it used to be quite different round here. I would like my grandchildren to see what it was like then.’ That was all he said—but on the strength of that I fought them tooth and nail.”
Ballantine fell silent. The only sound was the faint crackle of burning tobacco as he puffed on his cigarette. The old battler looked up and said quietly: “One sane voice is all you need.”