‘Who will look after the snapper now?’

New Zealand’s pioneer of marine reserves will be missed.

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The summit of Hauturu/Little Barrier Island was smudged in cloud as I drove in to Leigh on the morning of Bill Ballantine’s funeral. The community hall in the small Northland town—a few kilometres from Goat Island Bay, where Ballantine lived for 50 years after emigrating from England in 1964—overflowed with people who, like me, had come to acknowledge the country’s most persistent and effective advocate for preserving a few parts of the sea unfished and untouched.

Around the walls, fish woven from green flax with limpet shells for eyes bore eloquent tribute to Ballantine’s legacy: more than 40 no-take marine reserves in this country alone, stretching from the subtropical Pacific to the subantarctic, ranging in size from 7500 square kilometres in the Kermadec Islands (part of the much larger Kermadecs Ocean Sanctuary declared in September 2015) to a tiny 0.16-square-kilometre educational reserve north of Haast, said to be the best place in the country to spot Hector’s dolphins from the shore. (Appropriate, because it was Ballantine who came up with the idea of establishing a protected area free of gillnets for Hector’s dolphins in one of their strongholds, Banks Peninsula. His idea became the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary.)

Scientists, academics and family members recalled the life of a brilliant, argumentative, visionary, impatient, supportive, romantic man with a boundless passion for science and an unquenchable devotion to conservation. But perhaps one of the most astute comments came from someone who didn’t speak: one of Ballantine’s six grandchildren. On being told his poppa had passed away, the boy had asked his father, “Who will look after the snapper now?”

Who, indeed. Though it’s tempting to think that the machinery of marine-reserve creation that Ballantine helped to set in motion will proceed of its own accord, history suggests that won’t be the case. Committed, insistent, dedicated individuals will always be required.

Ballantine knew that. The glacially slow pace at which marine reserves were created in New Zealand used to infuriate him. He called it a “creep job”. “Do you know your Bible?” he once asked me, then quoted a line from the prophet Isaiah:

“Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little.’ That’s the history of marine reserves, and it will continue to be so.”

Somewhat less scripturally, he likened the process of creating marine reserves to a drunk trying to get a key in a lock. “You have to be sober enough to be at the right door, and hold the right key, but beyond that it’s just persistence.”

As for New Zealand’s being a world pioneer in marine conservation, Ballantine agreed, but added, deflatingly, “Yes, New Zealand was ahead for 25 years—in a race of arthritic tortoises. Not exactly a huge achievement.”

One of the aspects of Ballantine’s character that wasn’t much dwelt on at his memorial service, but which I admired, was his moral clarity on the subject of conservation ethics. Increasingly, marine conservation is propounded on economic grounds such as improved fisheries yields and enhanced ecotourism opportunities. Ballantine never had much use for those arguments—a point he made emphatically to me one morning as we sat at his journal-strewn kitchen table.

“I’ve always said that to do anything for money is stupid,” he said. “You tell me anything real that is properly decided by money. You’re going to get married and raise children. If anyone told you the cost of that, would it make any difference? Nothing I ever did that was important was decided by money. I’d like to put these market-forces people up on a stage and say, ‘Are you married?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you get a bargain?’ Whatever he says, his wife will kill him! ‘Are you making any money out of your children yet?’ If yes, he’d be put in jail. If no, he doesn’t believe his own theories. I don’t pay much attention to economic arguments for marine protection because I don’t pay much attention to economic arguments for having schools or getting married.”

In the early days of marine conservation, Ballantine said, he and his allies had had to “fend off the romantic argument, Is it beautiful enough to be preserved? Now we have to fend off the economic argument, How much will it return?” Marine reserves have economic value, but “that’s not how we conduct the argument”. Economic value is real, but secondary.

Ballantine liked to cite the example of English landowner and naturalist Charles Waterton, who built a nine-foot-high wall around part of his estate in the 1820s and closed it to shooting. “Everybody closed their estates to other people shooting, but not to shooting full stop,” Ballantine told me. “Waterton was considered a lunatic. Not eccentric—mad. He said, ‘I just want them to be there—the wildfowl, the deer.’ And I’m saying that about fish now. And mangroves, and other sea creatures. Not ‘Is this piece of coastline a biodiversity hotspot? Will it be a fish nursery? Will it attract ecotourism?’ I just want them to be there.”

One of the last scientific papers Ballantine published, in the prestigious journal Biological Conservation in 2014, was entitled, “Fifty years on: Lessons from marine reserves in New Zealand and principles for a worldwide network”. The paper finishes with these words: “I may not live to see marine reserve systems generally in place round the world (I am 75), but I am confident my children will see it happen, and that my grandchildren will merely ask why such an obviously sensible idea took so long.”

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