Aotearoa has its origins in a dispute over fish quota: Maui, having pulled up the North Island with his magic hook, leaves the giant fish in the safekeeping of his brothers, telling them not to touch it until he has made the customary gift offerings to the sea gods. But the brothers bicker over how to divide the catch, and start carving it up. The fish thrashes about under their knives and is transformed from a smooth landscape into a mountainous terrain. The North Island looks the way it does because of an argument over marine resources—an argument we’re still having today.
There’s a lot to fight over: potentially fabulous reserves of fossil fuels, billions of dollars worth of minerals, 1400 species of fish—an estimate that rises by up to 20 species a year as new discoveries are made—all this spread across a marine estate that is some 21 times the size of the country’s land area.
In 2014, Aotearoa stands at the threshold of a golden age of marine resource extraction. We also face a looming maelstrom of damaged ecosystems, invasive pests and climate threats. Some of our fish stocks have crashed, and many of our seabirds and marine mammals are in decline. We’re in a race with Mexico over whose dolphin will be the next to go extinct: their vaquita or our Maui’s dolphin. It’s a race we don’t want to win.
How, then, is the marine frontier—the Exclusive Economic Zone and beyond—to be managed, and its bounty sustained? These are serious political questions, but they are also personal, because the sea touches many of us deeply, perhaps even defines us.
Our ancestors—Māori, Pakeha, Pasifika—came by sea, and that memory is a point of pride and a mark of identity.
I think of the late Hone Tuwhare, writing poems in his crib on the Catlins coast, the sound of the sea close by. We would be lost without the ocean, he wrote— “soft thunder in our ears”.
I set out to follow that sound: to explore how we are living with the sea, and how we might do so in the future.
I begin my journey beside one of the richest stretches of ocean in the country. I am standing at the lookout on Kaikoura Peninsula, taking in the gorgeous sweep of the bay, listening to the rhythmic roar of surf on shingle. Snow glistens on the inland peaks, and draped around the mountains’ shoulders is a cloak of cloud—a korowai.
Now there is a protective cloak for Kaikoura’s seas, too: Kaikoura (Te Tai o Marokura) Marine Management Act. The legislation laying down the korowai was passed in August 2014. The suite of protective measures includes a whale sanctuary, a seal sanctuary, three mataitai (customary food-gathering areas closed to commercial fishing), two taiapure (coastal zones managed by tangata whenua), reduced bag limits for most recreationally caught species, and a no-take marine reserve to protect the deepwater biodiversity of the Kaikoura Canyon.
Enjoying the view with me is Ted Howard, a software developer for the fishing industry, the newly appointed president of the New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council, and one of many who helped to weave the cloak. It took nine years and, by his estimate, 500 hours of meetings to get the job done.
With a history in commercial and amateur fishing (also politics; he stood for both mayor and MP for Kaikoura), Howard was well placed to contribute. In his younger days, he fished for flounder in the Firth of Thames. It was a family business, selling from the side of the road at ‘Bill’s Place’. I used to pass it on my way through Waitakaruru when I worked at the local newspaper.
Like of a lot of commercial fishers, Howard moved with the fish. “Bit of trawling out of Wellington, bluefin tuna out of Greymouth, squid out of Nelson.” He got his coastal skipper’s ticket, his deep-sea mate’s ticket, and worked as a technical adviser for the Fishing Industry Board. These days, he fishes recreationally—blue cod and perch, a bit of ling, the occasional groper—from a well-used 14-foot-6 glassover-ply fizzboat with a 40-horsepower outboard and a big spool of line on a fixed reel.
“Two point five kilometres of 37 kg spider wire on that,” he tells me. “One metre per turn of the handle.” He’s had it out in 1800 metres of water. It takes half an hour for a kilo of lead to reach the bottom at that depth.
He laughs when he compares fishing off the Kaikoura coast, renowned for its deep canyons, with the shallow Firth of Thames. “Up there, you go three miles offshore and you’ve just made the low-tide mark. Here, you push the boat off the beach and by the time you hit the starter you’re already deeper than you are after half an hour’s journey from Waitak.”
It was during his years as an honorary fishery officer that Howard realised that Kaikoura’s legendary marine richness could hit the wall. “The numbers of people we were inspecting were scary,” he says. “On a Saturday in summer, I could inspect over 100 people—mostly complying, but mostly hitting their limits for paua and crayfish.
We had six honoraries, and up to a dozen full-time fishery officers. Suppose each of them was seeing 100 people. That’s maybe 2000, 3000 people on the water during the peak holiday period, most of them hand-gathering paua.”
Howard crunched some numbers. “If you’ve got 1000 people in the water taking their limit of 10 paua, that’s about three kilograms each, or three tonnes in total. If that happened even 50 days a year, that’s 150 tonnes. That’s a lot of paua—almost twice the commercial take.”
Everywhere the community looked, fishing effort was increasing. Local hapu Ngati Kuri were worried that their traditional food basket might not sustain them. (“Kaikoura”, after all, means “feed of crayfish”.) They wanted to see their customary fishing rights respected.
The catalyst for community engagement was not “we want a marine reserve” but “we want effective coastal management”, Howard tells me. However, getting consensus was never going to be easy. “For the first three years there was a lot of talking straight past each other,” he says. “People didn’t understand what other people meant by the words they used, and didn’t trust their intentions.”
What kept people at the table was the knowledge that this was perhaps their one shot at securing a fishable future for coming generations. “When the process started, the feeling in the community was that if we keep doing what we’re doing, in our great-great-grandchildren’s time there’s going to be nothing for no one,” Gina Solomon tells me.
I meet Gina and her mother, Darcia Solomon, at the Albatross Encounter cafe on the Kaikoura waterfront, where a stuffed wandering albatross soars over the ticket counter. For $115 you can take a boat ride to see the real thing. Or you can swim with dolphins. Or watch whales. Or catch fish. These lucrative ‘products’ (as the tourism industry charmlessly calls them) are among the reasons locals wanted to get their marine management right, and were prepared to spend, as Gina emphasises, “nine long years” to achieve a result.
Gina and Darcia were part of the korowai discussions from the beginning, Darcia as one of the runanga’s kaumatua. The meetings were held on the marae. This in itself posed a challenge. Undercurrents of racial distrust were part of the social seascape. “Our community—how shall I put this?— weren’t that open to things happening on the marae,” Gina says.
Darcia is more blunt: “When we first met we didn’t like each other.”
“At all,” adds Gina. “But you know what? It’s really hard to be angry if you’re sitting across the table from someone and eating a meal. Food brings people together. That was the runanga’s gift to the process: that we would provide tea at every meeting.”
A hundred and fifty people showed up to the first meeting, Gina says. “At the end they said to us, ‘Go ahead. You probably won’t achieve anything, but give it a go.’”
The organisers decided to base Te Korowai on the Fiordland Marine Guardians experience. Fiordland is considered the prototype of community-driven marine protection. Developed over 10 years, the Fiordland marine conservation strategy became enshrined in legislation in 2005.
One of the principles developed by Fiordland was the ‘egg’ organisational model, in which local interests (tourism, fishing, conservation, runanga) form the central decision-making yolk, while statutory agencies (councils, ministries, wider iwi, the Department of Conservation) occupy a supporting role as the surrounding white. This structure puts the stewardship responsibility squarely on the community.
Another Fiordland principle bequeathed to Te Korowai was the idea of gifts and gains. Each interest group gives concessions in order to gain a desired outcome, expressed in Te Korowai’s vision of “a flourishing, rich and healthy environment where opportunities abound”—a.k.a. “more fish”. In Fiordland, commercial lobster fishers agreed to stop setting pots in the inner fjords and recreational fishers conceded lower bag limits.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice Fiordland’s guardians gave the Kaikoura group was that to get buy-in, you have to consult widely, listen carefully and not impose a time frame on the process. Nine years on, Kaikoura has the most innovative combination of marine protections anywhere in the country.
It also has the strangest-shaped marine reserve. It looks like an AK47 with its muzzle resting on State Highway 1, just north of Goose Bay.
I am looking at a satellite image of it on Steve Dawson’s computer in Dunedin. “Hold on a second, let me try this,” says Dawson, a professor of marine science at Otago University, and he opens a digital bathymetry map of the area and overlays the two. The meaning of the reserve shape becomes clear. The protected area covers portions of seabed that are more than a kilometre deep. Most of the fishable depths are omitted.
“What, really, have the fishing interests given up?” Dawson asks. “Gifts and gains are all very well in theory—but what if the gifts are token?”
Dawson, who likes to remind me that I once poured liquid nitrogen down the back of his shoe during a biology lab, is one of the country’s leading cetacean experts. He knows the Kaikoura waters well, having spent thousands of hours studying sperm whales there.
“The problem with Te Korowai’s marine reserve,” he tells me, “is that almost no fishing occurs in it. The set-net fishery for groper and tarakihi operates outside this zone, and, except on extremely rare occasions, the deepwater trawlers do not come this close inshore. So what are the animals, plants and habitats in this protected area being protected from?”
Dawson likens the situation at Kaikoura to my agreeing not to drive my ageing vehicle faster than 200 kilometres an hour. “You’d find that restriction very easy to agree to,” he says. “You’d be giving away nothing, because your car can’t go that fast. You wouldn’t have to change anything about your driving behaviour.”
In Dawson’s eyes, the Kaikoura reserve leaves local fishing efforts largely unaffected. “How is that a force for good?” he asks. “Don’t confuse a social outcome with a conservation outcome,” he adds. “You can say Te Korowai’s been an excellent process, it’s been inclusive, people have had their say, and that’s fine, but for me as a marine biologist the rubber has to hit the road with meaningful protection, and this reserve hasn’t done it.”
Another scientist who fumes over the parsimonious protection afforded by the latest crop of coastal marine reserves—at Kaikoura and along the South Island West Coast—is Bill Ballantine, the limpet biologist who helped to write the Marine Reserves Act, spearheaded the creation of the country’s first marine reserve, at Goat Island, 90 kilometres north of Auckland on the east coast, and successfully campaigned for many more.
When I call on him at his home on the road to Goat Island Bay, he gives his opinion of the Kaikoura reserve. “It’s a lace tablecloth,” he says. “It’s feeble. It’s the leftovers. It wanders down the canyon on grounds that whales like to swim there, but as an ecological principle it’s a wisp of smoke.”
Ballantine delivers a similarly stinging appraisal of BPAs—benthic protection areas, which are off limits to bottom trawling but not to other fishing methods or to mineral extraction. (An application to mine phosphate nodules in a BPA on the Chatham Rise is being considered by the Environmental Protection Authority at this moment.) Ballantine likens the partial protection of BPAs to preserving a forest but allowing the branches and leaves to be harvested—and the birds that fly above the canopy. “BPA stands for bogus protection area,” he says.
BPAs are an example of a less rigorous type of marine protection known collectively as marine protected areas, or MPAs— “low take”, compared with the no-take reserves Ballantine champions. He’s sceptical of their worth. “Having MPAs which can mean anything is like calling a building a school and saying that thereby you have dealt with the issue of education.” No, you haven’t, he says. It’s what happens inside the school that counts.
And what happens inside no-take reserves is demonstrably better for marine life than what happens inside areas of partial protection. As evidence mounts on the fisheries benefits of marine protected areas, it is no-take reserves that do the heavy ecological lifting (see sidebar ‘A New Approach’).
How much of the ocean should be no-take, then, I ask? Ballantine is quick with an answer: “If you’re talking about science, education, the many forms of recreation that happen in marine reserves, 10 per cent of everything. If you’re talking about conservation of marine life in general, 20 per cent. But if you’re interested in fisheries, commercial or recreational, you’d be recommending 30 per cent of everything. Fishermen would get the first benefits and they would get the most benefits. Of course, they won’t believe you.”
Indeed they won’t, which is why the cloak-weavers of Kaikoura favoured the art of compromise. “I don’t know if we went far enough with our protection,” Gina Solomon admits to me, “but I think we got all we could have got without some big groups lobbying against it, and then we would have ended up with nothing.” That was what happened in 1992, when a proposal for a marine reserve around part of the Kaikoura Peninsula was scuttled by a combination of conservation over-reach and fisher resistance.
Opting for a larger no-take reserve ran the risk of collapsing nearby fisheries through displaced fishing effort, says Howard. Commercial and recreational fishers of cod, tarakihi, moki and other finfish had already been squeezed by a set-net exclusion zone that extends the length of the South Island east coast—put in place to protect Hector’s dolphins and other marine mammals. Having lost traditional fishing areas, the fishers were intensifying pressure elsewhere.
“If we had a government willing to buy back commercial quota to cover excluded fishing effort, then a larger reserve would be great,” Howard says. “But that’s not the reality we have.”
Under the terms of the korowai legislation, the Goose Bay reserve will be reviewed in 10 years—an ecological performance appraisal. “We’re pleased about that,” Gina tells me. “We want to see a lot of research on that reserve in the next 10 years.”
See if that machine gun’s shooting straight.
The outcomes can be debated, but Kaikoura, Fiordland and the South Island West Coast have provided a new model, and renewed enthusiasm, for marine protection. The model is currently being applied in Auckland. An initiative called Sea Change–Tai Timu Tai Pari aims to produce a marine spatial plan for the 1.2 million-hectare Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, one of the country’s most intensively used stretches of water.
Tim Higham, manager of the Hauraki Gulf Forum (and former New Zealand Geographic writer), says that the process “could be a game changer in the way communities assert and accommodate their various interests in the marine space”. The gulf project builds on the Kaikoura and Fiordland examples of negotiated management, but at a larger scale with greater complexity. Completion date is set for late 2015.
The beauty of this kind of collaborative process is that it avoids the adversarial stand-offs that have blocked progress on environmental protection in the past. Gary Taylor, chairman of the Environmental Defence Society, a non-government organisation with a long history of advocacy on water issues, says there’s “nothing more soul destroying than spending days of your life in an Environment Court”. We’re a small country, he says. “We should be able to sit around a table together and sort stuff out.”
That’s what will soon be happening in Otago, the only region in the country without a marine reserve. The Minister of Conservation recently appointed a 14-member forum to address that deficit. Chris Hepburn, a lecturer in the marine science department of Otago University, is the group’s designated biologist. He teaches on aquaculture, fisheries management and Māori customary fisheries.
The forum will have a year or more to deliberate on Otago’s marine protection options. Hepburn tells me he is in favour of Kaikoura’s approach of starting with a blank sheet of paper. “I’m hoping we won’t have any preconceived opinion on spatial planning, biozones and so on until we go to the communities and ask, ‘What are the problems?’ Science can come in later to try to provide solutions. A bottom-up approach gives a better chance of buy-in.”
This flaxroots approach is something Hepburn sees in his work with Māori communities. He speaks of Ngai Tahu’s concept of integrated management: ki uta ki tai, from the mountains to the sea. “They’re interested in whole-catchment solutions, not just having marine reserves,” he tells me.
On the spur of the moment, he suggests taking a drive up the coast to Karitane to meet some of the Ngai Tahu who established a customary management area there.
We find Brendan Flack planting trees with his whanau on a spit of land that flanks the Waikouaiti River, to stabilise the sandy soil and reduce erosion. Taking care of the land–sea connection. Elders of Flack’s runanga at Puketeraki succeeded in getting the East Otago taiapure gazetted in 1999 though it took them seven years to overcome opposition from some parts of the community. “Iwi vs Kiwi” racial prejudice has proved a persistent obstacle to progress on marine protection.
Hepburn tells me that science played a role in breaking down the antagonism, because it is generally seen as being independent of partisan agendas. “Recreational might not trust customary, but if science comes in and says, ‘You’ve both got a problem and need to do something about it’, they might start talking to each other.”
And that’s what happened. NIMBY— “not in my back yard”—gave way to TRIMBY—“taking responsibility in my back yard”. The resulting taiapure legislation has placed a roughly 22 kilometre-long stretch of coast from Waikouaiti to Purakaunui under the care of a local management committee, whose activities include monitoring marine life, taking an active role in fisheries management and being in the loop on resource-consent processes that could affect the taiapure area. Bag limits for fish and shellfish harvested in the taiapure are lower than on the open coast, and a rahui around a peninsula at the mouth of the Waikouaiti River prohibits all harvesting of paua. The committee recently recommended that a mataitai be established along part of the Waikouaiti River to protect eel habitat.
Flack says a lot of what a taiapure is about is common sense. He mentions the anomaly of people driving their 4x4s across estuarine cockle beds to reach the coast so they can dive for paua, “damaging one kai to get to another”. The committee hopes to put a stop to that practice.
A taiapure gives a stronger voice to tangata whenua, says Flack, enabling them to perform their kaitiaki role. The way he sees it, it’s the tangata whenua’s responsibility to ensure that everyone, Māori and Pakeha, enjoys healthy fisheries. Riparian plantings are one way of improving conditions in the sea, by limiting sediment and nutrient run-off. But the group is also involved in another sort of planting underwater—of paua.
The advent of paua aquaculture has made reseeding of wild coasts possible through the controlled spawning and rearing of juveniles in onshore facilities. Paua farms are happy to sell their excess at the rate of a few cents per millimetre. Flack’s runanga has seeded 500,000 baby paua, each about the size of a little fingernail. To give them a good start in their oceanic life, the group put small batches of juveniles inside kelp bags, or poha, which divers then placed under rocks or into crevices. (Paua in the poha—a koha for the sea!) “It felt good to put back more than we had taken,” says Flack.
He agrees to come for a dive with Hepburn and me the next day, to have a look at the habitat and maybe pick up a few molluscs for culinary sampling.
Mid-morning, after the sea fog has lifted, we suit up. I put on two pairs of neoprene socks and wear an Icebreaker top under my wetsuit. I tell myself I must be getting soft—but this is Otago in the coldest month of the year, when the water’s a teeth-chattering seven or eight degrees. I suggest to Hepburn that a good paua management strategy would be to make it mandatory to dive in the nude. In these chilly waters, the paua population would make a dramatic recovery.
I ask Flack to say a karakia for the dive and we wade out beside a headland through the flexing fronds of bull kelp. The hold-fasts of these wave-defying seaweeds are as big as frisbees. They look as if they have been fibreglassed to the rock.
We plunge under. My head feels as if two icy hands have gripped it, but after a few minutes I don’t notice. We swim out to where green waves are swelling up on a shallow reef. The visibility is terrible and the turbulence strong, but I find several passels of weed-covered paua in crevices at the edge of the reef. Above me, fronds of giant bladder kelp sway at the surface, and their long slim stems tangle in my fins. The slow roll of the swell lifts the kelp tops into the air like seal flippers.
Bladder kelp is a cool-water seaweed not found in the northern seas where I’m from. It is capable of growing as tall as some of our native trees, but thousands of times as fast—up to a third of a metre a day. Air-filled bladders at the bases of the fronds keep the tip of the plant at the surface while the anchor point can be tens of metres below.
In 2010, bladder kelp was brought in to the Quota Management System—over stern protest from several marine scientists who stressed its keystone role in marine ecosystems. Commercial harvesting of kelp is deforestation of the sea, they said. It is as foolish as taking coral from a reef.
Despite the scientists’ warnings, the annual catch limit was set at a little over 1500 tonnes. So far, less than 100 tonnes is being taken, for processing (say the harvesters) into pharmaceuticals, food supplements, fertiliser and aquaculture feedstock.
Hepburn, a marine botanist by training, was one who recommended a lower quota. Among his concerns was that removing the kelp canopy in shallow waters might allow the invasive Asian kelp Undaria to gain a greater foothold (see sidebar ‘Gorse of the Sea’). Undaria is a good food source for herbivores, says Hepburn, but its shape—a single flat blade with pinnate edges—doesn’t provide the complex canopy habitat that highly branching native kelps do. And whereas native species are perennial, Undaria dies off in the winter, so it isn’t a consistent food source. In addition, many native kelps have buoyant floats, so they wash up on beaches and become a nutrient source for terrestrial food webs. Undaria doesn’t.
A shift from native kelps to an Undariadominated system could have all sorts of unforeseen liabilities. As for that legendary bladder-kelp growth rate (said to be as much as a metre a day on sheltered coasts in California, where kelp plants can grow to 60 metres tall), Hepburn says that as sedimentation has increased along the Otago coast, reducing water clarity and light penetration, the distribution of bladder kelp has declined, and most likely its growth rate has, too.
“Cray fishermen say there used to be kelp forests on parts of the Otago coast where there is no kelp now,” he tells me. “They say habitat change from sedimentation and agricultural run-off is to blame. If we improve the conditions and the kelp regrows, maybe we’ll get the crayfish back.”
Like many of his colleagues, Hepburn believes kelp is worth more alive in the ocean than swallowed in a diet pill or sprinkled on plants in a suburban garden. A sustainable harvest? He has his doubts. In Tasmania, bladder kelp has declined to such an extent that in 2012, it was listed as an endangered habitat type, the first marine habitat to receive protection under federal law. The decline has been linked to warming sea temperatures off the east coast of Tasmania—a reality that our seas are also experiencing.
Warming up, rising high, turning sour these are the three inescapable ocean threats of our time: temperature, sea level and acidification. They dwarf all others, and they argue for a conservative approach to marine harvesting. Einstein famously quipped that God does not play dice. Should we?
There’s no seaweed cutting in this taiapure, and as I snorkel through the kelp forest, the long brown tresses look healthy and clean. Among the creatures that thrive on bladder kelp are sea urchins. Flack surfaces with a kina the size of a grapefruit, passes it to me and dives back down for another. I’ve never been one for sea eggs— slimy tasteless things, all gut and shell. But back on shore, Flack carefully cuts one open and offers me a fat yellow strip of roe. I swallow it and am amazed. Flack passes me another piece. It is the taste of the ocean distilled in raw flesh.
From the morning’s dive we’ve taken a dozen paua, half a dozen kina and some karengo seaweed—slippery dark magenta tufts that we pulled off some boulders in the splash zone. It’s more than enough for a feed—and the seaweed is destined for my daughter. The taiapure committee has as its motto the words: Mo tatou a mo ka uri a muri ake nei. For us and our children after us. We have taken a little for us, and left plenty for the children to come.
That kelp undaria —it’s in the vanguard of a wave of alien pests poised to break like a tsunami on our shores.
Like noxious animals and plants on land, these marine invaders typically live in a wide range of habitats, grow fast, mature quickly and reproduce prolifically. And this menagerie of menaces is only ever a biofouled boat hull away.
Just this year, a vessel heading for Fiordland was found to have the diabolical Mediterranean fanworm Sabella spallanzanii on its hull. A diver had been checking the hull for fuel efficiency in another port, and happened to recognise some patches of fanworm, a species which has infested ports and marinas from Lyttelton to Whangarei and is considered, along with Undaria, to be among the top 10 most unwanted marine pests in New Zealand.
Sabella looks like a fanworm on steroids. Its tube can grow up to half a metre long, from which a thick feather duster of filter-feeding tentacles splays out. On pontoons, jetties, wharf piles and other manmade structures, Sabella forms dense thickets, like an upside down forest of ferns.
Don McKenzie, biosecurity manager for Northland Regional Council, says it is one of the most efficient filter feeders in the world, and hence of major concern to the country’s shellfish farmers. “Here we go,” he tells me at a coffee shop in Whangarei. “Mussel—filter feeder. Fanworm—filter feeder. Who’s going to win that contest? Well, I’ll place my bet, and it won’t be on mussels. Fortunately, it hasn’t become established in our mussel farming regions yet.”
Others on the Ministry for Primary Industries’ most unwanted list include two species of sea squirt, three crabs, a seaweed, a starfish and a clam. Of these, five have yet to be detected. Authorities fervently hope that the starfish—the northern Pacific seastar—keeps away. “If it arrives, aqua-culture could take a massive hit,” says Tim Riding, an adviser with MPI’s surveillance and incursion investigation unit. “Without the natural predators that control it in other parts of the world, it could spread right around New Zealand.”
The five-armed yellow-and-purple seastar, a voracious predator of shellfish, turned up in Hobart’s Derwent Estuary in the 1980s and has reached near-plague proportions there. The species has a three-month free-swimming larval stage, so its arrival here is probably a case of when, not if.
Vigilance is our best defence, and to that end MPI’s surveillance officers conduct regular surveys in the country’s busiest ports and harbours to check for unwanted arrivals. But there are dozens of smaller harbours that aren’t often checked, and this is a worry for McKenzie.
“These invasives are coming,” he says. “It’s not good enough to think that everything’s OK under the waterline. It ain’t any more. So I’ve been saying to communities in the north, ‘If you’re worried about pests getting into your harbour, you’ve got to take action now. You need to be looking now. You need to know what is putting you at risk now. And if you find something, you need to be able to respond.’”
McKenzie thinks New Zealand could become a world leader in marine pest eradication, just as we are on land. “We could be a centre of excellence,” he says. “We’ve already developed world-leading techniques, and we’re a nation of seafarers. The sea’s in our blood, and this is an opportunity for Kiwis to make a difference.”
We’re likely to get plenty of chances in the coming decades. The rate at which new species are arriving on our marine doorstep is growing dramatically, says Graeme Inglis, a marine ecologist with NIWA. A recent inventory found 180 non-indigenous species in New Zealand waters, along with 377 “cryptogenic species”—organisms for which there is insufficient evidence to determine if they are native or introduced.
The main invasion pathways are biofouling and ballast water. It used to be that ships’ ballast water posed the greatest threat, but that risk has diminished through regulations that require ballast water to be treated (usually by exchange with low-risk ocean water) before it can be discharged in New Zealand. New biosecurity regulations introduced this year (but which will not be enforced until 2018) require that vessels arriving in New Zealand be substantially free of biofouling.
Inglis thinks there is good likelihood of progress on biofouling for the simple reason that as fuel prices rise, the economic benefit of a clean, low-drag hull rises too. “Many shipping companies were crunched during the global financial crisis,” he says, “so they’re looking at ways to improve vessel performance, and it’s in their commercial interest to run clean fleets.”
But regardless of whether shipping companies do the right thing, New Zealand must do the right thing and protect its marine environment, says Inglis. “Our marine biodiversity mirrors what’s on land. We have a high proportion of species found nowhere else in the world.” Not least, he points out, our famous endemic green-lipped mussel. (See sidebar page 39, ‘What’s So Special About Us?’)
Invaders threaten not just that unique natural heritage, says Inglis, but the social and cultural values that derive from what lives in our seas, and the primary industries built upon them. In some cases, though, invasives can themselves become valuable fisheries. The Pacific oyster, which probably arrived here in ballast water in the 1950s and started being farmed alongside the native rock oyster in the 1970s, now dominates oyster aquaculture.
The decision to tackle an invasive or admit defeat is a fraught one. So, too, is the decision whether to allow commercial exploitation once an alien is established. On the one hand, harvesting could potentially reduce the abundance and ecological impact of a species. On the other hand, if a market exists, unscrupulous individuals might release a species into new habitats that are more convenient for exploitation, and thus contribute to its spread.
Undaria is a case in point. It arrived in the country in 1987 and is now described as ‘naturalised’. In 2012, the government, under pressure from commercial hopefuls, agreed to allow Undaria to be farmed in Wellington, Marlborough and Banks Peninsula—all heavily infested areas—and to be harvested from artificial structures, but not from natural surfaces.
The New Zealand Conservation Authority opposed the move. It advocated harvesting only as part of control operations, and rejected farming out of hand. One of its concerns was that once commerce had a foot in the door, pressure might be applied to import new, more commercially valuable varieties that might prove to be “even more aggressive than the strains already present”.
The authority doesn’t accept the “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” approach to invasive species. In general, it says, commercial use of such species creates vested interests that may “oppose future efforts to control or eradicate the pest, should technical advances prove that practicable”.
The government, implies the authority, should be focusing on preventing damage to indigenous biodiversity, not looking out the corner of its eye to see if there’s a dollar to be made.
But balancing a local commercial opportunity against the risk of spreading an unwanted organism is not easy. Recent arrivals with commercial potential include the Japanese mantis shrimp, found in Hokianga and Kaipara harbours, the greasy-back prawn, in Auckland and Whangarei, and the Asian paddle crab, in the Hauraki Gulf and Whangarei. At what point do these invasives become a legitimate part of the biota, and fair commercial game?
I was travelling south from Kaikoura when I saw a sign-written campervan with the message: “The glass is half full and the other half was delicious.” It struck me as a reasonably accurate description of the global fishing industry—except that the glass is only a quarter full. Between 75 and 85 per cent of the world’s fisheries are said to be “fully exploited, over exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion”.
The oceans and their fisheries are tanking. You only have to glance at the doom-laden titles on library bookshelves to know this: Sea Sick, The Empty Ocean, The End of the Line. “What we see now is the ghost of what it was,” Steve Dawson tells me. He mentions Pacific bluefin tuna, down to just four per cent of its unfished biomass. In 2013, the owner of a chain of Japanese sushi restaurants paid $US1.8 million for a single Pacific bluefin tuna at the Tokyo fish market. “When an individual fish is worth that much, there is no chance of effective conservation because there is no chance of effective compliance,” says Dawson. “So those big bluefins—I hold out next to no hope for them.”
Southern bluefin, a different species, is fished here, off the West Coast. It is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “It shouldn’t be fished, in my view,” says Dawson. “It’s teetering on the edge. But they’re easy to catch and there are places they congregate, so people fish them there.”
Fishing for endangered species, says US oceans advocate Carl Safina, amounts to calling ahead to cancel the next generation’s restaurant reservation because we want to eat their lunch. But, like the climate our descendants will have to live with, their lunch options don’t appear to be a pressing political concern. The latest data on the state of the world’s fisheries shows that the number of fish stocks within safe limits continues its downward trend.
New Zealand’s fisheries are considered a rare bright spot in a gloomy global picture, and the Quota Management System is credited with having set us on a sustainable path—‘sustainable’ for the fishermen and their catch, if not for the underlying ecosystems.
But the QMS has had some unfortunate side-effects. One persistent criticism is that it has led to a loss of coastal stewardship. In pre-QMS days, a plethora of small fishers operated in specific stretches of coastline, and fishing often ran in the family, so there was a sense of local connection.
Karitane was one such location. When I crossed the Waikouaiti Estuary with Chris Hepburn, he remarked that there used to be a fleet of 25 little fishing boats moored there, next to the township. “Now there are only one or two,” he said. “The size of the modern quota management areas means you’re better off being a roving bandit than someone who ‘gardens’ their bit of coastline.”
Some fisheries—notably high-value, geographically localised ones such as crayfish and paua—encourage good environmental stewardship, particularly where the quota holders are the actual fishers, and not distant investors. In some parts of the country, all the paua divers in a quota management area have agreed to wear submersible GPS units on their backs (a technology called the Turtle, invented and developed in New Zealand) which track their every move, recording where they dive, how deep they dive and how long they spend under the water. This data is pooled among the group and enables quota holders to see which locations are being fished most heavily, and to micro-manage their effort accordingly. Many paua divers also reseed their areas with hatchery-raised juveniles spawned from local adults.
Another problem with the QMS is it contains no incentive to use fishing methods with a low environmental impact.
“Under the QMS the most important thing is the catch,” says Dawson. “Habitat is secondary. Other species of fish in that ecosystem are secondary. When you have a system like that, where’s the incentive to fish less destructively?”
The poster villain for destructive fishing is bottom trawling, a technique whose global use is increasing. New Zealand has been a pioneer in its use in the deep sea. Bottom trawling makes me think of the slogan for the problem-drinking campaign: “It’s not the drinking, it’s how we’re drinking.” It’s how we’re fishing, too, that’s a problem.
Perhaps it is in the nature of brutality that a language of euphemism arises to disguise it. Here’s one: the four-inch-diameter chain that stretches across the front of a bottom trawl, gouging the substrate and demolishing anything in its path, is called a ‘tickler’. Heavy steel balls spaced along its length, to help it roll across the seabed, borrow a sewing-machine term, ‘bobbins’. Industry-speak for the destruction of fragile seabed communities is ‘benthic interactions’. The area a net has passed through is said to have been ‘swept’.
Could we change how we’re fishing? Viktoria Kahui, a senior lecturer in economics at Otago University and a former policy analyst with the Ministry of Fisheries, thinks so. She believes that the use of “price instruments” could be one option to provide a commercial incentive for fishers to use less destructive methods. For instance, the biological depletion of seamounts—the result of fishing trawlers moving from one sea-mount to the next as catch rates of orange roughy fall on those already fished—could be addressed by the introduction of a sea-mount fee. Such a fee would bring the environmental cost of seamount damage into the commercial equation for the fishers involved. Kahui’s rationale is that bottom-trawling activity on pristine seamounts would cease if fishers had to pay a premium to harvest them.
Pamela Mace, MPI’s principal fisheries science adviser, says the fishing impact on seamounts is overstated. Parts of them are too steep or too rocky to fish, or are inaccessible beneath overhangs. “So there’s only a small portion of a seamount that gets fished,” she tells me in Wellington. “There’s an implicit refuge for the communities that live on them.”
As for the damaging impacts of bottom trawling, Mace says we should think about what happens on land before condemning fishing practices. “We call it ‘developing’ land, but to make new farms or towns you destroy the ecosystem that’s there and replace it with something artificial,” she says. “Yes, fisheries change marine ecosystems, but they leave a functioning ecosystem that has many of the same properties it had before fishing started. Marine ecosystems continue to function in a semi-natural way—as opposed to much of what we do on land”.
That comparison isn’t an excuse for environmental neglect, she adds. Fisheries must be conscious of their social licence to operate, and as the arc of public opinion bends towards environmental responsibility, fisheries must adjust their activities accordingly.
Mace says that is happening. “Twenty years ago, there was no budget to look at the environmental effects of fishing, such as the effects on protected species or benthic habitat. It wasn’t on the public radar, whereas now it’s front and centre.”
Eco-labelling programmes such as Marine Stewardship Council certification are going to become increasingly important if New Zealand fisheries are to maintain market access. Mace mentions environmental NGOs in Europe and elsewhere that lobby supermarkets to sell only fish that comes from a certifiably sustainable source.
Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society believes the fishing industry must inevitably move in this direction. The prime incentive is that the quantity of catchable fish is capped, so the only way to grow the sector is in higher-value product. “If you can get a fish out of the sea in pristine condition and serve it on a plate in 12 hours in Tokyo, that’s how you’re going to add value,” he says.
And that is precisely the aim of a $50 million joint venture between government and industry, called Precision Seafood Harvesting. Instead of fish being dumped bruised and broken on trawler decks, new net technology allows them to be landed alive. In a video clip on the project’s website, the CEO of Sealord says the new technology is going to make wild-capture harvesting “exactly the same process as what aquaculture enjoys today”.
Bottom trawling, like the slaughter chain in a freezing works, is one of those procedures that has traditionally been kept out of the public gaze, but the centuries-old net-hauling method can be refined if there is the will to change. The motivation may be to protect the bottom line rather than the bottom of the ocean, but it’s a move in the right direction.
While writing this story, I’ve had beside me an arresting picture: a satellite image of New Zealand overlaid on a bathymetric view of Zealandia—the far larger submerged continent beneath us. Just as the famous “blue marble” photograph of Earth from space changed our thinking about the planet, the topographic view of Zealandia challenges us to think differently about New Zealand. Our terrestrial landmass is an emergent comma of land on a vast subsea continent bigger than Greenland. To my eye, Zealandia looks like a giant blue octopus swimming to Antarctica—a massive plateau in the south trailing ridges and canyons, like tentacles, in the north. This is us; and 95 per cent of us is under water.
What’s even more special about the picture I’m looking at is that it shows many of the 1500 underwater seamounts, knolls and hills in the New Zealand region. It is like looking at the night sky full of stars. People lament the loss of rainforests and the undiscovered species they may contain—the potential cures for cancer lurking in their genes—but seem unconcerned about the equivalent loss of biodiversity from this constellation of underwater peaks, which may be as biologically different one from another as Madagascar is from Campbell Island.
Many of them are 1000 metres high. That’s four times higher than Rangitoto, twice the height of Kapiti and roughly the same as the highest point on Banks Peninsula or Stewart Island.
Suppose we thought of these underwater mountains as terrestrial islands. We would eagerly explore each one, looking for the unique, the beautiful, the irreplaceable. I think of the Mercury Island tusked weta—the only weta with tusks (it looks like an insect mammoth) and found on only one tiny island, not even on the other islands in the Mercury group. What might be the underwater equivalent of the tusked weta, living on seamount #1499? Do we even care to know?
In 2003, the Pew Oceans Commission wrote that two things are necessary to solve the ocean’s problems: better awareness and better governance. Better awareness crashed into public consciousness in 2011, when the container ship Rena struck a reef and disgorged its oil and contents into the Bay of Plenty. Incredibly, three years later, that toxic chalice is still languishing in the bay. It’s not going anywhere until the Environment Court hears the owner’s request to leave it there.
Better awareness comes in quieter ways, too, as people abandon the “inexhaustibility hypothesis”—the mistaken idea that the ocean is so vast and bountiful nothing humans can do will seriously deplete it.
Better governance, in New Zealand’s case, means developing an integrated oceans policy and reforming the country’s scattershot marine legislation.
“There are 18 main statutes, 14 agencies, and six government strategies for marine management and planning in New Zealand,” notes a 2012 report by Monterey marine policy specialist Michael McGinnis.
Lack of integration makes it expensive and uncertain for commercial enterprises to operate in the marine area and for the government to plan and manage. “It has led to messy, poor decision making,” Gary Taylor tells me when I visit the Environmental Defence Society’s offices on Auckland’s North Shore.
One of the reasons for ad hoc marine governance, says Taylor, is that for a long time not much was happening in the marine realm except fishing. Now, with a surge of interest in the economic possibilities of the Exclusive Economic Zone, the need for strategic planning and environmental management has become urgent.
“This is brought home quite clearly in the Chatham Rock Phosphate application to mine over an area of benthic reserve,” says Taylor. “They’re able to do that because the protected status of that area is not recognised in the EEZ Act. It’s in the Fisheries Act. So that’s an example of two pieces of legislation governing the same place.”
Taylor calls the recently passed EEZ Act “first-generation gap-filling legislation”. There’s a much longer journey ahead, he tells me, to get the comprehensive governance framework we need. To help that process along, his society has set up an oceans forum in which key actors in the marine area—fisheries, aquaculture, oil and minerals, conservation, shipping, iwi and others—will focus on the question of what best-practice governance of New Zealand’s oceans would look like.
The organisation has had success with its previous initiative, the land and water forum, and hopes the saltwater equivalent will prove equally effective. “Getting ocean management right is the last big environmental challenge for our generation,” Taylor says. “That’s what we’ll be working towards in 2015.”
It’s a challenge we can all take on board, and a choice, I think. Wield the knife of Maui’s brothers, greedy for their share of the booty. Or weave a stitch or two into a korowai of care for the sea that breathes soft thunder in our ears.