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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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