Richard Robinson

Taking on water

New Zealand once led the world in marine protection. Now our underwater ecosystems are bottoming out. Why is stopping fishing so politically fraught? How might our ideas about marine protection need to change? And why, when our seas are in such desperate need, is it taking us so long to learn to talk to each other?

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

This reef in the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve was named Wade’s World, in homage to the late diver and naturalist Wade Doak. His campaigning helped create the reserve in 1981—though at first, recreational fishing was allowed to continue. “It was felt that that amount of fishing was just a sneeze, that it didn’t amount to anything,” he told this magazine in 2006. “It was only with time—when the golden snapper and the pink maomao started to disappear—that we became aware that it was dreadful.”

As soon as my mask breaks the water, I can see fish in every direction. Descending through clouds of dainty two-spot demoiselles, I follow Quentin Bennett into the blue.

He points as a huge stingray swims towards us at eye level. Another is basking on the sand, while a third passes above us, its belly white and wings undulating. Where the near-vertical wall of rock meets the sandy bottom, a group of parore and snapper are patiently waiting in a little clump. Bennett indicates a stripy, banana-sized fish hiding among the weeds nearby. This is a cleaning station, where larger fish queue up to wait for little combfish to pick parasites from their scales.

We see elegant black angelfish, kelp forests, grey moray eels with their mouths open into the current, and tiny orange-spotted nudibranchs the size of my fingernail. I make particular friends with a curious fish in Gorman colours: mauve, maroon, highlighter-yellow, and scarlet red—a male Sandager’s wrasse. A confetti of blue and pink maomao shimmers near the surface. There is more diversity and life-in-motion here than I’ve ever seen underwater in New Zealand.

Two-spot demoiselles swarm the protected reefs of the Poor Knights Islands, one of the first marine reserves in the world. We are now far behind other countries in protection of our marine estate, something successive governments have failed to correct.

Bennett, 81, is a retired optometrist. He lives in Napier, and began diving in the 1950s at the age of 13. Even back then, he felt he was watching his local spots deteriorate—fewer fish every year, hāpuku disappearing entirely from the coast, all the big crayfish gone.

He first dived here at the Poor Knights in the 1960s, and has returned every year since: 60 years of underwater observation. In 1981, after a campaign by the late diving pioneer Wade Doak as well as Bennett and others, the ocean surrounding this Northland archipelago was gazetted as New Zealand’s second marine reserve. But recreational fishing was still allowed almost everywhere within it, and some fish populations continued to plummet. Finally, in 1998, the islands were fully protected.

The restrictions came too late for some species. The huge schools of hāpuku Bennett saw in the 60s never returned, and nor did some unusual kinds of groper—territorial pairs he used to visit year after year. But the decline halted, and though a few characters were missing, the reefs gradually returned to relative abundance.

[Chapter Break]

Marine reserves work. When they are well-designed, well-enforced, large enough and in the right place, they can prevent extinctions, protect important habitats, and provide numerous other benefits that transcend their boundaries. The return of large predators like sharks, snapper and crays brings the whole system into balance. As populations build, they can spill out into surrounding areas.

These places show us what once was, or what could be. They’re a counterpoint to what’s known as “shifting-baseline syndrome”: the way societies adjust their expectations downward with each generation.

Without these relatively pristine places, we’re at risk of thinking the current state of depletion everywhere else is normal; thinking things are fine, because we don’t know any different.

We used to imagine marine reserves as something like show-homes or libraries. But now, we need the patches of sea we protect to do more. Since 1971, the ocean has absorbed more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the atmosphere. Global sea surface temperatures just hit a record high, and other stressors abound—sedimentation, plastics, pollution, invasive species, and other monsters we can’t yet envision or predict.

Healthy, mature, and abundant populations—like those in established marine reserves—have more resilience to chronic stressors and enough genetic diversity to adapt after catastrophic events. On the Great Barrier Reef, where one third of the marine park is under no-take protection, 20 years of data from nearly 50 reefs showed that those inside reserves were much less affected by coral bleaching, invasive starfish, storms, and coral disease—and they bounced back much faster. Protected areas can also work like seedbanks or nurseries, propping up struggling ecosystems outside their boundaries.

So if we can shield a significant part of the ocean from fishing and mining while still leaving the majority open for exploitation, we just might help the seas to weather storms of our own making.

Quentin Bennett, left, has been diving at the Poor Knights for six decades, closely observing its changes and its wonders.

In principle, successive governments have wanted more marine reserves. Like efforts to reduce smoking and child poverty, reserves have cross-party support. For a long time, the government’s goal was to ringfence 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020. In December 2022 the government got more ambitious, signing up to a United Nations convention that aims to protect 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface by 2030.

The public is on board. Two years ago pollsters Horizon asked more than 1000 Aucklanders about the idea of protecting 30 per cent of the beleaguered Hauraki Gulf using rāhui, temporary fisheries closures, and no-take reserves. Three-quarters of those surveyed thought it was a good idea. Only five per cent were opposed.

And yet so far, less than half a per cent of New Zealand waters are fully protected. There are 44 fully no-take marine reserves around the country, most of them tiny. Ten of those got across the line in 2014, and none have been approved since.

Creating a marine reserve is always controversial. They are vigorously opposed by both commercial and recreational fishing lobbies. Many iwi and hapū also oppose no-take reserves: not because they’re against marine protection or want to pillage the seas, but because such permanent closures cut across hard-won Treaty settlements and fishing rights guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi. Permanent closures are seen as being imposed rather than co-designed, and have the potential to further alienate people from
ancestral places.

Like this flame-coloured nocturnal nudibranch, Janolus ignis.

In June 2023, after years stuck in bureaucratic limbo, three separate proposals seemed to be on the cusp of resolution: the Rangitāhua/Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, a network of marine protected areas in Otago, and a plan for 12 new high-protection zones in the Hauraki Gulf.

“This is an extraordinary moment in New Zealand’s history,” says Hauraki Gulf Forum chief executive Alex Rogers.

Like everyone in the debate, Rogers is invested: as a young child he played in the waves by his North Shore home, and later fished and explored the Gulf and its islands in his dad’s runabout. “If you look at what we have done in the past, and what we might be about to do—this is really significant for us as a country.”

[Chapter Break]

I grew up within walking distance of Goat Island Marine Reserve at Leigh, one of the first areas on Earth—perhaps the very first—where fishing was entirely and permanently banned. As a kid in the 1990s, I took it for granted there was somewhere down the road I could snorkel with my family and schoolfriends—where masses of blue maomao and snapper swam around my feet and I could cup a slippery sea hare in my
bare hands.

In the 1960s, Bill Ballantine and other marine biologists fought to carve out this small area where they could study marine life without interference from fishing, “where they can’t eat our experimental animals”, as Ballantine later wrote. After six years of persistent agitation—a timeline that now seems nimble—the Marine Reserves Act (1971) was created. In 1975, some five square kilometres from Cape Rodney to Okakari Point was gazetted. “Nothing to do at Goat Island anymore,” declared the local newspaper. Three hundred thousand people now visit
every year.

Scientist Phil Ross monitors kelp growth on Rena at Astrolabe Reef—the site of New Zealand’s worst oil spill, where marine life now rebounds. Protection of three reefs around Motiti was achieved via the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Environment Court—a first, and one of several attempted workarounds of the past-its-use-by Marine Reserves Act.

What Ballantine and others didn’t anticipate was that protected ecosystems don’t just stabilise, they flourish. At Goat Island, as snapper and crayfish populations rebounded, kina numbers dropped and kelp forests grew back. This unexpected success inspired other marine reserves here and worldwide.

Globally there are now close to 15,000 marine protected areas, although definitions vary, and most of these allow some forms of fishing and even mining. Crucially, only around 1000 are highly protected, covering 2.9 per cent of the ocean. (These are valuable to scientists, marine life, and even fisheries.)


Although the Marine Reserves Act was groundbreaking in its day, it is now more than 60 years old and has not aged well. “It’s a dysfunctional piece of legislation,” says Raewyn Peart from the Environmental Defence Society, who spent last year working on an in-depth report on ocean legislation reform in New Zealand.

Partly, that’s because the Act has a fairly narrow focus on scientific research, and was geared towards small, local reserves that would function as “wet laboratories” without overly affecting fishing. Most importantly, though, it predated the establishment of the Quota Management System and made no mention at all of the Treaty of Waitangi.

[Chapter Break]

Article II of the Treaty guarantees Māori “full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their… fisheries”. This foundational agreement has been broken over and over by the colonial and New Zealand governments during the last 180 years. The final straw came in 1986, when the Quota Management System removed any recognition of Māori customary rights to fishing and fisheries, while commercial Māori fishers received disproportionately small amounts of quota.

Six fraught years later came the Māori Fisheries Settlement: a contested, imperfect, and of-its-time effort to regain at least a fraction of what was taken. Māori received $150 million to buy half of Sealord, the ability to manage their own customary fisheries, and established the advocacy and settlement-protection entity now known as Te Ohu Kaimoana. Iwi also received 10 per cent of existing quota, and the right to 20 per cent of any new species brought into the Quota Management System. In return, Māori gave up their right to any further fisheries claims.

There’s a diverse range of views on marine protection within te ao Māori, ranging from local kaitiaki, small-scale customary harvesters and those operating large commercial fleets. Where there is opposition, though, it is on two main fronts: rights and culture. Edward Ellison (Ngāi Tahu) is upoko, customary leader, at Ōtākou on the Otago Peninsula, and has been leading efforts to oppose marine reserves in the South Island since the 1990s. The Marine Reserves Act, he’s argued for years, is “hostile” to Māori interests.

Partly, that’s because cutting off access to any fishery—customary or commercial—is perceived as eroding the Fisheries Settlement. Working through the settlement—both between iwi and the Crown, and among iwi—was a tortured process, he says. “Relationships were very strained. There was a lot of blood on the floor.” With that supposedly resolved and final, requests for marine reserves look like “the Crown is just coming back for another slice”.

Another grievance is that the process for nominating and progressing a marine reserve under the Act treats Māori like any other stakeholder, rather than a Treaty partner, equal in status to the Crown. “It is not recognising our rights, not giving us our place.”

But the most contentious aspect of marine reserves for iwi, Ellison says, is that they lock up an area in perpetuity. “It’s completely alien to the way we relate to our whenua, to our wai, to our moana.” In the Māori worldview, humans are an integral part of nature; the only way to properly care for a place is to be actively involved with it. Gathering kaimoana has always been a critical facet of that connection to place and environment.

There has been frustration, too, with the lack of investment and human presence in marine reserves. Active restoration and intervention has been frowned upon by DOC, which only in 2020 began routinely monitoring and reporting on changes to biodiversity and habitats—in 25 of our 44 marine reserves. “To be a kaitiaki you’ve got to understand what’s happening to an ecosystem,” says Ellison. “You don’t just lock it up and walk away.”

Rick Ngamoki launches a waka unua with a crew of paddlers at Karitane in the East Otago taiāpure, which allows for customary and commercial take. Iwi here have banned set-netting, protected kelp, enacted enduring rāhui over pāua and removed invasive seaweeds.

Making a reserve permanent, without any way of adapting it as circumstances change, makes Ellison uncomfortable. When you take a multigenerational view, you don’t want to be the one to make a decision that might disenfranchise your grandchildren. “If I was acting for the tribe, and I agreed to a marine reserve, I’d be slashing the throats of all of these tamariki around here, or the whānau who go out and customary gather,”
he says.

He has history on his shoulders, too. “Our people survived off kaimoana and fish because they lost all their land—so it’s even more precious. Kaimoana helped to keep the kai in the cupboard. So, goodness, it’s a hard one.”

[Chapter Break]

It’s a cold, clear, late autumn day at Bobbys Head, on the Otago coast north of Dunedin. The low sun lights the harakeke and tī kōuka clinging to the cliffs and leaves long olive shadows on the bright paddocks at the estuary’s edge. As we walk along the clifftop, Brendan Flack (Ngāi Tahu) points out seals lolling on the rocks, while far below, waves throw themselves against the precipitous

Flack is tangata tiaki, a local guardian or trustee of this coastline, and the chair of the East Otago Taiāpure committee.

Taiāpure, coastal patches, are one of the tools Māori have been using to manage their customary fisheries and exercise their rangatiratanga, or chieftainship, since the Fisheries Settlement. For 24 years, Flack’s hapū, Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, have looked after this area with other locals and fishers. We can see parts of the taiāpure from here. To the south, beyond a sloped headland, cliffs, points and estuaries stretch for 22 kilometres. It’s not technically a marine protected area, and would not count towards the United Nations convention, because commercial fishing is still allowed. But the committee have banned set-netting here, protected native kelp from harvest, restricted commercial cockle fishing, removed invasive seaweeds, and in 2010 placed an enduring rāhui on collecting pāua around one hard-hit peninsula.

They have also worked with scientists from the University of Otago to monitor and research their patch. After studies by marine biologist Chris Hepburn and his team showed pāua populations continuing to fall, in 2019 the rāhui was expanded to the entire taiāpure.

Since 2001, a programme called Experiencing Marine Reserves has immersed school students in the moana, teaching them about marine conservation and providing hands-on experience in the ocean. Here, they venture across the reefs at Goat Island Marine Reserve—New Zealand’s, and perhaps the world’s, first marine reserve. It now hosts 300,000 visitors every year, many coming for their first look at a relatively intact marine ecosystem.

In southeastern New Zealand, pāua, a taonga species, has few true refuges: it is protected only through Māori customary management via rāhui in taiāpure or mātaitai (smaller areas with stricter limits) plus a couple of Dunedin beaches where the sewage outfall makes eating them a health risk.

“When I think of marine conservation in the South Island, I think of mātaitai and taiāpure,” says Hepburn. “I think of tangata tiaki. They are leading us at the moment.”

Beyond these mechanisms, Otago—home to endangered dolphins, penguins, seals, sealions, albatrosses, and the endemic Otago shag—is the only region in New Zealand without a single marine reserve. In 2014, the government appointed a forum to recommend marine protection options for the southeast of the South Island. Members comprised fishing, conservation, mining and tourism interests plus community representatives and iwi. Flack and Hepburn were both members, and Ellison was the deputy chair.

A proposed network of marine reserves would further protect Otago’s unique underwater biodiversity, like this rock wall at Green Island (right).

After years of heated debates and submissions, the forum is proposing: a lattice of six no-take marine reserves and five lesser marine protected areas, where certain fishing methods would be restricted. Ecologically important bladder kelp would also be protected from the Otago Peninsula to Tīmaru.

In total these protected areas would cover 1267 square kilometres—14 per cent of the region’s ocean. As ever, conservationists wanted more protection, while fishers—both commercial and recreational—lobbied for less.

[Chapter Break]

From Bobbys Head, Flack and I are looking straight out at one of the most controversial sites—the proposed Te Umu Koau Marine Reserve, 80 square kilometres stretching north from the salt marshes of the Pleasant River estuary.

Beneath the wash, these waters are full of wonders: sea caves, pāua reefs, seaweed gardens, and New Zealand’s largest offshore bladder-kelp forest, which shelters crayfish larvae, juvenile fish, and a host of other marine animals. Endangered hoiho/yellow-eyed penguins breed on this headland, as do spotted shags and sooty shearwaters.

But the area is also popular for pāua and blue-cod fishing, and encompasses a cray fishery worth some $2 million annually. A marine reserve here would lock commercial fishers out of those bountiful reefs.


Ngāi Tahu own some of the affected quota—part of the settlement they are determined to protect—and some whānau rely on commercial fishing for employment. The fear, and the fight so far, has been about what happens when you push that fishing into surrounding areas. (Experiences in the North Island and overseas suggest a reserve would enrich fish stocks around it, not deplete them).

Commercial interests aside, Ngāi Tahu also want their people to stay connected to these places—and their proposals could help us understand what marine protection that makes sense to both cultures might look like.

“We didn’t ask for these marine reserves,” Flack tells me, as a shag swoops past into the wind.

“We see the benefit of marine protection, but we still have to maintain that connection. For the health of the people, for their mauri ora, it’s really important to be able to do something that your ancestors did. If you lock up a fishery, there’s no opportunity to maintain that mātauranga, to actually experience it, to taste it—all the other values that go with the act of gathering or fishing.”

Ngāi Tahu have suggested a workaround. They have asked that local iwi members be paid to work as rangers within the reserves. This would help to compensate for future fisheries job losses, but more importantly, be a chance to exercise kaitiakitanga, develop mātauranga, and monitor the reserves’ performance through underwater surveys.

Ngāi Tahu have also asked for “generational review”: that after 25 years, the results of the monitoring guide what happens next. If a reserve is not aiding ecosystem recovery, perhaps other changes might be necessary, or the reserve could be moved elsewhere. “And if it’s working well, then maybe humans can be part of that ecosystem again,” says Flack. Importantly, future generations would be empowered to “make their own chiefly call”, as the iwi’s customary fishing guru Nigel Scott puts it.

Finally, Ngāi Tahu wants to be able to teach its children to fish. The iwi has asked to occasionally exercise its customary rights in marine reserves for wānaka hī ika—workshops that teach the art of traditional fishing. Such teaching doesn’t necessarily have to be extractive, Flack says—people could put the fish back—but it would be a powerful, evocative tool for safeguarding traditions, spurring enthusiasm, and ensuring future generations care enough about the ocean to nurture and defend it. “The risk is, if it’s not relevant to you any more, you’ll turn your back.”

Brendan Flack, is the chair of a committee that has proposed a network of marine reserves in Otago, with Green Island, above, being the jewel in the crown.

Chris Hepburn says Flack’s hapū should be trusted to get this right. “I’d eat my hat if they went and hammered it at all. They have led conservation in this area. Trust must remain, and the rights have to remain. Once we get over ourselves, then I think you’ll get more marine reserves.”

Ellison would prefer to protect species through rāhui. But he is proud of the forum’s work, and says doing nothing is not an option. “I believe we do need to have protection. If we’re fishing everything, we’re just exposing ourselves to great risks.” With some of these tweaks, the proposal—now before government—is a compromise he can live with. “We’ve seen it as a tool, a tool to get us back into that water.”

Imagine building a waka from scratch with a group of young people, Flack says. Imagine each of them carving a bone hook, polishing it until it gleams. Then picture them paddling out into a bay roiling with fish, lowering a line, and feeling what their ancestors felt—back when they were surrounded by leaping, shining abundance.

“That’s not something that’s going to happen tomorrow,” Flack says. “It’s not going to happen in my generation. But it may be that it’s something our mokos can access in the future.”

[Chapter Break]

A couple of weeks ago, scientists were diving off Rangitāhua/Raoul Island in the Kermadec archipelago—a scatter of lake-studded volcanic islands, islets and rugged rocks a thousand kilometres northeast of New Zealand—when they noticed something adorable.

Half a dozen green turtles were fast asleep with their heads buried in the warm sand near a geothermal vent. “Like a day spa for turtles,” says Auckland Museum marine biologist Tom Trnski, who was on the expedition. “I think they were just warming up their brains.”

Tom Trnski, head of natural sciences at Auckland Museum, right, has led 10 scientific expeditions to Rangitāhua/the Kermadec Islands. The museum has a multi-year Marsden grant to research the surrounding waters, which are still practically untouched by fishing and host an array of marine life from both tropical and temperate seas.

Since 2010, Trnski has led 10 scientific missions to Rangitāhua, many of those alongside mana whenua Ngāti Kurī (Te Aupōuri also has mana whenua here.) He’s a fish expert, and every time he goes, he sees tropical fish that weren’t known to exist there. As far as he’s aware, the turtle day-spa behaviour has never been observed before: just another reminder that this vast area of ocean is still full of mysteries.

Whales, manta rays, tuna, and mahimahi pass through these waters on their way to New Zealand. Tropical and subtropical reef fishes hug the coasts, and the 10-kilometre-deep Kermadec Trench is home to countless life forms unknown to science.

These waters are among the most pristine on Earth—an oasis, almost as far as you can get from humans. That makes this a place of global importance for studying the impact of climate change on oceans—it doesn’t have all of our other confounding effects.

A speckled moray eel is framed by coral polyps at Te Konui Point, Raoul Island. These waters, 1000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand, are among a handful of sites worldwide that are free from direct human influence.

The marine reserve here is 33 years old and it’s our biggest, almost 7500 square kilometres, radiating 12 nautical miles from the shore of each island and rock. It also has a huge buffer. Barely any fishing happens until you hit 200 miles out—the edge of our exclusive economic zone. There, it’s a crowded field, as vessels from China, Taiwan, Japan, Spain and Vanuatu fish as close as they can to our territory.But within our waters, dredging and bottom trawling are prohibited under a Benthic Protection Area. Right now, fishing this sea using other methods is uneconomic for New Zealand vessels—it’s simply too far from port.

In the early 2000s, conservation groups reasoned that extending the reserve across that whole 620,000 square kilometre buffer zone would shunt us within cooee of meeting our international obligations. It would also secure for the long term a vast, untouched area for marine life to live in, migrate through, and breed without interference.

[Chapter Break]

Bronwen Golder led the campaign for a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary from 2010 to 2015 on behalf of the Pew Charitable Trusts. It felt like she was getting real traction. Mana whenua were on board, polls showed the public were enthusiastic, and Hollywood director James Cameron was so moved by the idea he personally lobbied then-Prime Minister John Key in support.

Then in 2015, out of the blue, Key stood up at the United Nations in New York and announced the creation of the sanctuary.

The campaigners, mana whenua, and Te Ohu Kaimoana were notified just hours before the news broke. Golder was shocked; the government had done no consultation of its own. Te Ohu Kaimoana accused the government of “grandstanding on the world stage”, and declared that the “unilateral imposition” of the no-take sanctuary undermined the Fisheries Settlement—that precious right it had already had to fight so hard for. To those pushing for the reserve, Māori concerns seemed hypothetical—nothing was being fished there. To Māori, it was yet another example of the Crown’s fundamental lack of respect.

The proposed sanctuary comprises an entire quota management area. The Crown owns 80 per cent of the area’s quota, and Te Ohu Kaimoana holds 20 per cent in trust. One day, that quota might turn into a real catch: it’s not out of the question that the Kermadecs could in future be fished  if fish stocks move there or if new technologies make it viable.

If a cash cow like the orange roughy was discovered in these waters, Māori would have the right to 20 per cent of that quota. (Settlement negotiator Tā Tipene O’Regan wears a badge depicting the mythical “blue roughy” to symbolise that right.)

In 2016, Te Ohu Kaimoana filed High Court proceedings against the government, and the fishing industry lined up in support.

Amid the furore, the government backed away. The sanctuary was put on ice. For Golder, it was a profoundly disillusioning moment.

“It wasn’t about marine protection, and it wasn’t about kaitiakitanga—it was about politics and positioning and influence.”

To her it suggested that marine protection was disposable, and vulnerable to political machinations. “Ocean conservation is not important enough to our politicians for them to draw a bottom line.”

For seven years, there’s been little progress on the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary—at least, that’s what it looked like from the outside. But behind the scenes, the government and Te Ohu Kaimoana have been quietly negotiating, trying to come to a solution that would allow for the sanctuary while also protecting the settlement and the role and influence of iwi as Treaty partners.

As this issue went to press, everything was coming to a head.

[Chapter Break]

On June 13, representatives of 45 of the 58 mandated iwi organisations that represent all Māori in Aotearoa met in Wellington to vote on whether to support the Crown’s final offer.

The hui was held at the James Cook Hotel—an unfortunate choice, as the legacy of colonisation set the scene for the discussion that unfolded. The proposed changes to the original bill were many, and wrapped in most of the resolutions made by Te Ohu Kaimoana’s iwi members at a hui a year ago.

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary proposal recognised the Fisheries Settlement and Treaty of Waitangi, and would allow customary fishing throughout the sanctuary. There would be $40 million in funding for research over 20 years—including fisheries research—though some iwi thought this was insufficient. Most significantly, the Crown offered Te Ohu Kaimoana the possibility of resuming commercial fishing in the area after 20 years. But the final decision on the quota and stock available would rest with the Fisheries Minister, leaving some uncertainty over whether it would really be allowed in practice.

A moray eel hides behind a large yellow Gorgonian fan at Dayrell Island in the Herald Islets.
Some five to 20 per cent of the Kyphosus pacificus (beaked drummer) population carry a yellow colour mutation.

The question before those gathered was simple: to support the proposal or reject it. In the end, all but three voted to reject it. “There was an emphatic ‘No’, and the key bit was that it was the Crown’s proposal,” says Harry Burkhardt, who represented Ngāti Kurī at the hui.

Burkhardt and Ngāti Kurī have long supported no-take marine protection for the entire 620,000 square kilometres. They abstained from the vote, saying that Te Ohu Kaimoana does not represent their views. But Burkhardt says he understands why the vote went the way it did. There was, he says, a widespread appetite to support the idea of marine protection in the Kermadecs. “I think the iwi in the room wanted to say yes to it. But it’s about rangatiratanga, it’s not about fish.”

Mistrust of the Crown runs deep. There are wounds on top of wounds. Key’s unilateral declaration in 2015 is overlaid on the Fisheries Settlement, the Quota Management System, the breaches of the Treaty itself. To overcome those grievances, and unequivocally support a sanctuary—for that is what the yes/no setup demanded—iwi needed the legislation to inspire them. But the version that was presented felt foreign, Burkhardt says. It was not conceptually Māori.

“The nomenclature, calling it a sanctuary, that’s not our words. The concepts wrapped around it were not our concepts. One of the things I’ve been clear about in this geopolitical environment, where people want 30 per cent of the ocean protected by 2030, is that they’re constructs that don’t have relevance to us.

“They don’t talk about wellbeing, they don’t talk about abundance, they don’t talk about how we ensure our whānau are engaged and living abundant lives. It’s hard to fall in love with. And we’re not tolerant of the lack of acknowledging our worldview.”

So iwi said no.

The vote likely spells the end for the Kermadecs proposal. (Environment Minister David Parker could still push ahead in defiance of iwi, and test these questions in court—but that would only further entrench the mistrust, and he would likely face opposition from Māori members of cabinet.)

The Kermadecs is a highway for whales and perennial feasting post for other large migratory species such as oceanic bottlenose dolphins.

Golder is deeply disappointed the government seems to have failed, yet again, to get the sanctuary across the line. This version represented a significant compromise for the Crown and environmental advocates, but it still would have been the first transformative piece of marine protection legislation since 1971, Golder says, and unquestionably good for the ocean.

“Everyone is talking past each other and the result is a shared tragedy for everyone.”

[Chapter Break]

The Kermadec saga reveals the rifts that must be repaired before we can fully protect significant parts of our seas. But the idea of marine protection in Rangitāhua might not be dead yet.

The iwi in the room on June 13 opposed the Crown’s version of a sanctuary, but they also agreed to start a conversation about an indigenous-led approach to marine management—not just in the Kermadecs, but around the country. “What the Crown proposed was a no,” says Burkhardt, “But us getting in the room, talking about what that could look like for us, was a yes. We need to sit down with a blank piece of paper, and think about what it
could be.”

There is considerable excitement about this prospect, says Te Ohu Kaimoana chair Rangimarie Hunia (Ngāti Whātua). Iwi plan to begin discussions in the next few months. Protecting the Fisheries Settlement will be fundamental, she says. “There was a promise made with iwi 30 years ago, and the moment we start to eradicate or remove those rights, it’s precedent-setting—not just for fisheries, but for every other commitment that the Crown has made with iwi.”

How these new ideas are developed and framed is central, Hunia says. “We want to have a chance to hold the pen.”

An idea floated in Te Ohu Kaimoana’s briefing document to iwi encapsulates something of the approach: for Rangitāhua’s tapu to be upheld, “it must be frequented again, sung to, chanted to, and celebrated—rather than just being a place that no one visits”.

In the most optimistic reading, this moment could be the beginning of something new—a deep, loving, robust form of marine protection that everyone can say yes to.

In the meantime, Ngāti Kurī will continue the process of reconnection with the islands and ocean that they began 20 years ago. Iwi members will keep visiting Rangitāhua with scientists like Trnski, keep reclaiming and developing their mātauranga, keep exercising their sovereignty. “We’ll continue to hold mana over the islands and the sea, and we’ll continue our work without the construct of a piece of legislation,” Burkhardt says.

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A Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary might be out of reach for now. But formally protecting parts of the Hauraki Gulf is still very much on the table. If we can learn some lessons from the Kermadecs, could we, at least, get it right here?

Since she was a child, Sue Neureuter has been swimming, fishing and gathering shellfish in the waters around the Noises, a chain of islands in the Hauraki Gulf. Her family have been visiting their bach on the largest island, Ōtata, every summer since the 1930s. They cherish intergenerational memories of crayfish dinners, aquarium-like rock-pools and watching kahawai and trevally churn the ocean all the way to
the horizon.

Fifty years of snorkelling around Ōtata, though, has given Neureuter a front-row seat to the Gulf’s diminishment. “It once brought me a lot of joy, but now it brings me a lot of sorrow,” she says. “It reminds me that things aren’t as they should be.” Kina barrens are rife, and the once-abundant yellow-eyed-mullet are almost gone. “You can’t get a crayfish. You can’t get a scallop.” (Two years ago, scientists found only 31 legal-sized scallops across a square kilometre of seabed.)

In May 2021 a female minke whale washed ashore at Goat Island Marine Reserve north of Auckland. Mana whenua Ngāti Manuhiri, including chairman Mook Hohneck, centre, blessed and named the whale before it was buried—a way to maintain and nourish their cultural connection with the moana.

The Hauraki Gulf has been hammered. Successive State of our Gulf reports highlight the ongoing degradation of this beloved, busy waterway. Less than 0.28 per cent of it is protected, and that scrap is torn across six tiny marine reserves.

A bespoke piece of legislation is on the table now. It would expand the existing reserves at Goat Island and Cathedral Cove and create 12 new high protection areas, including a 60-square-kilometre box around the Noises.

These areas would boost protection of the Gulf to nearly five per cent, and be similar to existing no-take marine reserves, but with some changes to give effect to the Treaty—namely, some form of customary take will be allowed.

The government has not yet provided details of what that would look like. It’s hinted, though, that this will not be a wholesale right akin to allowing recreational fishing in a marine reserve—the Poor Knights demonstrated the problems with this approach—and is more likely to be limited to occasional ceremonial harvest in accordance with tikanga and kaitiakitanga, as decided by each of the Gulf’s 30 or so iwi and hapū in their rohe. If that’s the case, these would still be highly protected reserves, in line with international commitments.

The government has also promised to monitor and report on the sites, though has stopped short of offering any generational review. It’s not clear whether active restoration projects like seeding mussel beds or removing invasive species would be allowed.

Marine reserves can’t solve all underwater problems. At the Poor Knights, underwater photographer Ian Skipworth checks out Centrostephanus sea urchins, exploding in number in warming waters, and devastating the corals and kelp on reefs around the islands.

“The package that’s on the table is certainly not everything we would want, and it’s well short of what science and mātauranga says that we need. But the political realist in me says we’ve got to take it,” says the Hauraki Gulf Forum’s Alex Rogers.

“I’m a firm believer that if we are designing things in a way that reflects the values of all of our communities, including mana whenua, we will get something that is more durable, and ultimately is more cared for. If you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go far, go together. We’re on the cusp in the Gulf of producing that new model for the country.”

Several sources say the legislation is written and the government intends to introduce it to Parliament in August. Realistically, that means it won’t get over the line before the election, leaving the next government a hot potato to pick up—or not. After a decade involved in the process, Sue Neureuter is losing patience.

“Do we have to wait until everything has gone before someone makes a call? Does the last snapper have to go before the government takes action?” Four generations of her family have fished from Ōtata’s beach, but she will happily trade the right to do so for the chance to see what protection might make possible—what might return to these waters, what they might contribute to the wider Gulf. “What have we got to lose? The ability to catch a few skanky snapper?”

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Other countries are grappling with these questions. What is unique to New Zealand is that indigenous rights were turned into abstract, tradeable, financialised property rights via the Fisheries Settlement. “Using quota for the Treaty settlement was quite unusual,” says Raewyn Peart, and it introduced a contradiction into the heart of the Quota Management System. “You’re using what was supposed to be a mechanism to manage fisheries sustainably to give iwi a source of income.” More than just income, iwi quota has become the modern expression of fishing rights and rangatiratanga that stretch back far before European settlement.

At the same time, the system divorced Māori fishing rights from the places that they live in and have mana over, says Burkhardt.

Rehua Ferris embraces a pou marking a rāhui tapū at dawn on Waitangi Day 2022 in Tāwharanui Regional Park north of Auckland. Ngāti Manuhiri laid down the rāhui to allow scallops and other kaimoana to replenish in several sites in the Hauraki Gulf.

The fact this happened at roughly the same time that New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone was declared had unfortunate consequences, says Golder. Rather than setting aside some of our patch for biodiversity, “we carved up the entirety of the space for fishing interests,” she says. “They operated on a blank page and wrote the story, and that story has dominated ever since.But fisheries should not define our vision and ambition for our
ocean space.”

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Even if the Kermadecs, Hauraki Gulf and Otago proposals were signed into law, a little more than 15 per cent of New Zealand waters would be protected. Doubling that area in the next seven years is certainly ambitious, and the government does not have a clear path to get there.

Meaningfully protecting 30 per cent of our ocean would require us to truly reckon with the relationship between marine protection, fishing, and the Treaty settlement, says Peart. It may also mean some challenging compromises. Financial compensation to iwi and commercial fishers for marine protection is a Pandora’s box successive governments have been unwilling to open—but to get more big reserves, we might need to reconsider the idea, Peart says.

The approach was used successfully in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, she points out—the government there paid out AU$214 million in compensation to commercial fishers over a decade to protect 33 per cent of the marine park in no-take reserves. Fair compensation—including some way of reckoning with the ‘blue roughy,’ the Māori right to 20 per cent of new fisheries—would mean iwi could retire some quota without diminishing the value of the settlement.

“We need to actually come up with a fair solution for how we reallocate space that fishermen only have because they were there first,” says Peart.

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The seas can’t wait much longer. Worldwide, threats loom behind threats. But when the sea has our undivided attention, it repays a thousand-fold.

Back at the Poor Knights, our dive is over. Quentin Bennett gives me a thumbs up, and we surface as a huge kingfish circles beneath the boat. After we peel off our wetsuits and nurse hot Milos, I ask Bennett what this place means to him, what he gets from coming here again and again, just to look at it.“Awe,” he replies, his voice breaking slightly. “It’s pretty special.”

The ocean moves us all, though we experience it in different ways. A child feels awe, pulling up her first sprat on a handline. So does a scientist watching sleeping turtles. A commercial fisher wrestling a 100-kilogram tuna onto a high-seas longliner feels it, too. And so would a kid tossing a homemade hook from a waka into abundant seas.

A Galapagos shark torpedoes out of the gloom at the Cheeseman Shoal in the Kermadecs. Scientists have found that reserves must be large in order to protect big, ecologically important fish like this, a failing of many of New Zealand’s protected areas.

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