Marine Conservation on Great Barrier Island

by David Speir


Our beloved rock, Pikiparia, Aotea, GBI, call it what you will, has an amazing length of coastline: exposed rocky cliffs, surf-washed beaches, mangrove-fringed estuaries, fjord-like harbours with multiple variations of exposure, substrate, aspect and tidal effect.
These shallow waters around us are flushed with nutrient from the land, oxygenated by wave and wind action, and stirred by tidal movement.

Red Moki – a slow moving and territorial keystone reef species
and a sitting duck for spear-fishermen. In steady decline around GBI.

Millions of creatures inhabit these waters – a food chain beginning with atomic sized viruses, through miniature brocolli-like phytoplankton and fungi, upwards through multiple trophic levels to the apex predators we are so fond of eating. It’s a sophisticated self-regulating food chain – that is, until we entered the picture.

We prize our seafood — the snapper, kingfish and crayfish we enjoy is perceived viscerally, genetically even, as part of our lives. For the pioneer settlers of Aotea (maori and pakeha alike) the readily harvestable (and seemingly inexhaustible) supply of marine protein was critical to their survival when conventional farming and crop growing proved challenging to say the least.


Proposed marine reserve area (2004 application) for NE Great Barrier coast


Time has changed that picture considerably as populations burgeoned. (The tiny tuatua shells in the Whangapoua middens tell the story of maori population pressure). Nowadays we have cultivated a visitor industry, a curious term that implies profit or production from visitors. This may may be the case if you hire cars or rent out accommodation, but for our marine resources it translates into more fishing pressure. While many locals still harvest kai moana for sustenance, many of our visitors do so as a holiday experience.

They come with dreams of snapper fillets and crayfish tails, equipped with the latest technical support – up to the minute weather reports, high speed fizz-boats, fish-finders and soft baits, radar and cell phones. Their money is invested in this extractive technology and they want a return.

And so do others. Day in and day out, in all types of weather, commercial fishing vessels work our waters. They operate more efficiently than ever, under statutory regulations that licence them to impact massively on local fish and shellfish stocks.

The pressure is on and the effects are being noticed. For snapper, our table fish of choice, local feedback tells us that the average sizes are dropping and amateur catches are declining. Look however at non-migratory, territorial and longer-lived species and you have a truer picture. Hapuku that used to be caught off the local point are now targeted on deepwater reefs over the horizon – in short they are becoming a locally absent species. A key apex predator in our reef communities has been fished out of the picture.

Hapuku – “I have seen the moa vanishing – underwater ...”
Photo and tweet: Wade Doak

Marine conservation on GBI
Historically Maori are said to have regulated their seafood gathering on a tribal basis in local areas. This would have been confined to sedentary species like shellfish where their intensive gathering could have had considerable impact.

More recently efforts at marine conservation on GBI have had two major thrusts.

After the Marine Reserves Act (1971) was passed, scientists from the Leigh Marine Laboratory of Auckland University became interested in the Whangapoua mangrove estuary of Great Barrier. The compact and relatively unspoilt estuary (by mainland standards) presented a potential study site which they lacked elsewhere. Further investigation established the rich variation in substrate, exposure and habitat presented in the exposed soft shores and rocky coasts of Harataonga and Arid Island. Their work, and recommendations from the Ministry of Fisheries Management Division of MAF identified areas of the northeast coast as warranting some form of protection. The Marine Reserves Act empowered the Director General of the Department of Conservation to apply for an Order-in-Council to establish a marine reserve in the area.

DOC initiated informal discussions with tangata whenua and local residents commencing in 1989. A public discussion document was circulated to GBI local residents, visitors and other interested groups in 1991. After this consultation, and liaison with a locally formed GBI Marine Reserve Steering Committee, a draft plan was released “to a targeted audience”. The draft plan defined an area from “Waikaro point in the north to Whakatautuna Point in the south and offshore to encapsulate Arid Island”.

Submissions were invited – a total of 65 were received.1 Only 12 came from GBI residents and the GBI Steering Committee, 2 from Tangata Whenua, 9 from commercial fishing interests and 43 from ‘Interested parties’ including Forest and Bird and the NZ Underwater Association. The limited response reflected the restricted scope of the consultation and publicity.

There was some on-island support for a marine reserve (in principle), but opinion was divided over design and location. Locals in the proposed area did not wish to lose access to fishing sites and sought to manipulate the boundaries to preserve these. Consequently DOC’s final plan was rejected by the few local residents’ submissions as it did not ‘bend’ to local needs. Of interest was that iwi at the time opposed DOC’s plan on the basis that they wanted a much larger area of marine reserve (from the Needles to Wakatautuna Point).

The application failed to get beyond the draft stage. The official word from DOC was: “In light of a review of priorities for Auckland Conservancy, the draft application was put aside and the marine reserve project postponed.”2

A new proposal for a Marine Reserve in the same area got legs in the early 2000’s. A public consultation document produced by the Department of Conservation: A Marine Reserve for Great Barrier Island? Your chance to have a say ran to 11,000 copies. Over 1800 written submissions were received in response. DOC’s formal application was for an expanded area of coastline from the Needles to just south of Wakatautuna Point and extending eastwards out to the 12 mile limit, an area of over 50,000 hectares. In a political concession to iwi the Whangapoua estuary was completely excluded from the plan.

It was a big slice, and one which shut the door for local (and visitor) fishing and gathering on the whole northeast coast. Locals were not amused and their level of negativity and distrust in the project (and DOC) went up several levels.

The much larger number of submissions received went down ‘party’ lines: both recreational and commercial fishers opposed, scientists and conservation groups supported, affected locals mostly opposed but suggested workable options, and the silent majority remained silent. Recreational fishing interests, through an organisation known as Option 4, tendered over 550 form objections – although there was no breakdown of local content in this.

The final application disappeared into the Beehive and came to naught as crucial Ministerial support did not materialise. Inside sources suggested that a critical reason for the Minister of Fisheries “NO” to the proposal was the withdrawal of iwi (Ngati Wai) support, the issue (in their minds) no doubt conflicted by the then current seabed and foreshore rights debate.

Locals shook their heads, DOC pulled theirs in and everyone kept fishing. Twenty years later some openly regret that we do not have one of the finest temperate waters marine reserves in the Southern Hemisphere with all the attention, visitor interest and economic activity this would have created.

More recently in June 2013 the GBI Local Board sought submissions on the Aotea/Great Barrier Local Marine Protection and Planning Proposal. 164 submissions to a questionaire were received and nine submitters appeared in person before the panel which was made up of all the members of the Local Board, Mike Lee (Gulf Islands Auckland Council Representative) plus Auckland Council, DOC and iwi representatives.

The panel reported that the common themes of submissions were: “a ban on commercial fishing, a sustenance fishing right for locals” and “…some marine protection/reserve areas within this”.3 This has been restated into the recently produced Local Board Plan along with some detail on how this might happen.

Sea Change
One of the Local Board’s indicated pathways to marine protection for GBI waters is through Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari. The first forum of its kind in New Zealand, Sea Change began in 2013 and is charged with developing a new spatial plan for the Hauraki Gulf. The plan, to be delivered in 2015, will identify solutions to issues in the 1.2 million hectare Hauraki Gulf Marine Park area and what is needed to safeguard its future. Plan recommendations will guide the development of policies and processes of various councils and agencies with a view to safeguarding the gulf’s core cultural, environmental, social and economic values.4

The Sea Change project is a partnership involving mana whenua and statutory agencies Auckland Council, Waikato Regional Council, the Hauraki Gulf Forum, the Dept. of Conservation, and the Ministry for Primary Industries. The wider public will also be involved throughout the development of the draft marine spatial plan through targeted engagement with a stakeholder working group.

The GBI Local Board has stated in its draft plan that “we propose that our local marine protection initiative be progressed as part of SeaChange, provided it progresses in a manner which addresses the island issues.”5
SeaChange is an outcome of the application of the theory and attempted practice of Integrated Coastal Management – “a process rather than an outcome, which seeks to integrate the planning and management decisions made over coastal land and adjacent sea by a number of agencies of the crown and local government.”6
Integrated coastal management has evolved in an attempt to rectify our present disintegrated management system. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the attempted implementation of marine conservation on Great Barrier.

Raewyn Peart in her paper to the 2008 Conserv-Vision Conference, Integrating the management of New Zealand’s coasts: challenges and prospects, suggests that the present coastal management system we have been working under is “embedded with underlying conflict”. Why? Because “different management agencies are trying to achieve different outcomes, through different management approaches, which benefit different stakeholders”.6 Her research into the management of the Hauraki Gulf showed the disjunctive approaches between agencies and authorities and she broadly summarised these as follows:

• In their coastal planning Regional Councils strive for balance between maintaining “values” while enabling activities to take place. They do so through “discretionary decision making within a regulatory framework”. Their delicate balancing act theoretically allows people to co-exist with nature. People being able to drive their cars on beaches comes to mind as an example.

• Territorial Authority Planners “are more concerned with managing the coastal land development process” and this “can result in process focussing more on meeting the needs of people rather than nature.” The Te Arai beach real estate development adjacent to the critically engangered fairy tern nesting site is a graphic example.

Snapper biomass in SN1 is now estimated
at 16% of its original size

• The Ministry of Fisheries manages the natural resources of fisheries in a way which maximises value – “allocating the resource to the combination of uses that derive the highest additive value…” This can mean allowing commercial interests to fish down the biomass of a stock (such as snapper) to less than 25% of its original with the attendant impact on rereational fishing and the environment.

• The Department of Conservation is charged with “conserving NZ’s natural and historic heritage for all to enjoy now and into the future”. The exclusion of people from undertaking extractive and damaging activities in areas to be protected is their main management approach. Proposals to protect whole marine ecosystems from negative human activity through creation of no-take reserves are typical.

• Tangata Whenua seek “to apply a whole different set of values to resource management that are founded on the spiritual connection between people and nature, and between past, present and future generations.” People are never disconnected from nature, and never valued less than nature. In objections to marine reserves, Maori have consistently reserved their right to harvest seafood if and when stocks improve, and so support their marine conservation management role (kaitiakitanga) through mataitai driven fishery regulation.

• The Resource Management Act plays a pivotal role in the allocation of public space for marine aquaculture. It is a market-driven resource allocation process which does not concern itself with the effects of the activities although it is charged with “sustainable management” – a loose term that is “not backed up by the agency’s patchy monitoring of marine ecology or of providing clear accountability.”6

We hear the echo of these entrenched positions when any marine conservation debate re-emerges on GBI. A debate that is inevitably charged with unresolved conflicts of the past.

Integrated coastal management as a solution to this embedded conflict in planning for the Hauraki Gulf was first explored through the Hauraki Gulf Forum, which has had a statutory basis since the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act 2000 was enacted. The forum has representatives from two regional councils, 10 territorial authorities, 6 tangata whenua representatives and appointees from DOC, MPI and Ministry of Maori Affairs.

Their statutory approaches to achieve integration at this level have had in Peart’s words “little direct impact on the coastal management activities of individual agencies”.6

It’s most likely a question of scale. The job is too big, too complicated, too protracted a process and too bound up in politics. Peart suggested in her papers’ summary that “doable, small spatial scale integration” is happening and will in the future “focus on localised hotspots where interagency collaboration is required to address issues of immediate concern”.6

Great Barrier/Aotea certainly has an issue of immediate concern. Clearly, it is the impact of the commercial sector on our fringing waters. The only workable and long term solution is that commercial ‘mining’ of fish stocks in our immediate waters must reduce or cease altogether to allow the marine ecosystem to recover.

This is the hard nut to crack. It won’t happen if we ask them nicely, that’s for sure. It will have to go down a pathway of interagency collaboration in order to achieve a statutory outcome.

It is realistic (provided we accept a protracted process) to task Sea Change with dealing with this issue. But, it is unrealistic to expect Sea Change’s gulf-wide plan to manifest the detail and local knowledge in applying appropriate marine conservation on GBI. Their 15 person stakeholder working group does not even have a representative from GBI.

As Islanders we know our resource better than any. Our focus has to shift from exploiters of this resource to managers and guardians of it. In order to get on with it we need to apply our own marine conservation from the grassroots – outside of the current statutory process. How we go about this is a conversation that we need to start.

Are Marine Reserves necessary?
There is a body of opinion that suggests that no-take Marine Reserves are unnecessary, that Marine Protected Areas with community or iwi-driven regulations are adequate. In a sense we already have this with various fishing regulations governing recreational catch, a quota management system allocating the commercial fishing pie and various other poachers with keys to the gate… and it isn’t working for GBI. The best argument for no-take reserved areas as core components of marine conservation comes from the marine scientists, the first to admit of how little we know of the complex and dynamic marine world. They do know that nowhere on the NZ coast can you find a pristine marine space to compare as a baseline. It is nigh impossible to gain understanding of natural processes from a study of ecosystems which are being constantly harvested. Management needs to be based on knowledge of natural systems. We have to protect some habitat in order to gain an understanding of how to manage it sustainably.


Archival shot from an early NZ ‘Dive’ magazine of Robin Wales
holding a 20lb packhorse cray – taken in the Cavalli Islands.
The NE Barrier coast is one of only two other sites where they are found.
Photo: Courtesy of Wade Doak


Options for spatial definition of Marine Reserves.
From a science-based first-principles stance marine reserves in our fringing waters can be spatially defined with relative ease: Identify the major habitat types and try to represent them all in a network of sites around the island. If possible, get two of each in case one suffers catastrophic damage. The differentiation of sites is based on exposure (open ocean easterly to SW sheltered waters), substrate (muddy estuarine through sandy beach to boulders and rocky reef), depth and terrestrial influences like stream mouths/runoff and shoreline vegetation types. Make them big enough to be a significant percentage of the whole and give them clearly demarcated boundaries. And yes, somebody will have to keep a watchful eye on them.

At the social end of the pendulum swing is a community-based model. Each significant cluster of coastal population takes ‘ownership’ and ‘management’ of a reserved area – ideally its location adjacent, accessible and observable from the population clusters. Again, clear demarcation of borders is important. Local knowledge will assist in these decisions as the location still needs to protect known aggregation and spawning sites, reefs and sea meadows, as much as it facilitates fishing around them. In these surrounding “fishing allowed” zones each caretaker community could experiment with regulatory process.

Given a clear picture of the options, some independent scientific advice and conflict resolution guidance, I have no doubt that local committees would come up with acceptable solutions for their respective areas. The debate would be local, and not hijacked by outside interests, as was the case with Option 4 in the last Marine Reserve application. The outcomes would be site specific, tweakable over time and transparent to all.

We would have to accept firstly an education and acceptance process among our own, and after that a similar process for visitors. It would take time and patience, but it would be our plan for our waters. Our guests and friends would come to “do as the Romans do” – this community is small and connected enough for the message to propagate.

The outcomes would not have immediate statutory basis, but would have wide community support which, I suggest, is far more potent. We could proceed in the knowledge that a cohesive community voice would be a powerful tool in the process of ‘fencing out’ the commercial fishing sector, and that leading by example is the best political pressure we can bring to the table in order to gain eventual statutory backing.

The process would be integrating of our community rather than divisive, empowering of our mana and creative of a legacy for our children.

We have the energy, the experience and the skills within our community to do this. Do we have the will?

1 Analysis of the Submissions to the Draft Application for the Rakitu Marine Reserve, Alan Moore, Auckland Conservancy, Dept. of Conservation Sept 1994.
2 Aotea (Great Barrier) Marine Reserve Application Report February 2005 Dept. of Conservation, Auckland Conservancy
3 Report of the Aotea/Great Barrier Local Marine Protection and Planning Hearings Panel, 24 July 2013 Great Barrier Environmental Planning Committee
5 Aotea Great Barrier Local Board Plan Draft p 27 “Marine Protection”
6 Integrating the management of New Zealand’s coasts: challenges and prospects, Peart, Raewyn December 2008 Proceedings of the Conserv-Vision Conference, University of Waikato 2-4 July 2007.


Environmental News Issue 33 2016