If New Zealand is really committed to marine conservation we should start in our own part of the ocean

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

This week is Conservation Week and to celebrate each day our blogs will focus on a different conservation issue.

Over the weekend China, the Ukraine and Russia rejected New Zealand and the United States’ bid to create the world’s largest marine reserve in the Ross Sea. This is the fourth time the bid has failed, and while green campaigners have vowed to fight on, it demonstrates the huge challenge facing any country that tries to protect international waters.

It is time for Plan B. If New Zealand is really committed to marine conservation we should start in our own part of the ocean. Conservation groups campaigning for the marine reserve in the Ross Sea should refocus their efforts on the New Zealand EEZ.

The Ross Sea and Toothfish

The Ross Sea is a special area for New Zealand. As we saw during the Our Far South project, New Zealand lays claim to the Ross Dependency, a slice of Antarctica that extends from the ocean at 60 degree south all the way to the South Pole. Under the Antarctic Treaty we have agreed to ‘freeze’ that claim and work with other nations to manage Antarctica by consensus.

Nations have managed to protect the Antarctic continent, for the most part, but the oceans are a different story. Historical whaling has hugely altered the environment. Now the Ross Sea is home to a lucrative and controversial international fishery for the Antarctic Toothfish. While many of the claims made by green groups about this fishery are false, everyone agrees that the southern oceans are important – this is a special part of the globe and in need of protection.

These international arrangements are a double-edged sword. They have stopped nations from coming to blows over who owns what, and protected the Antarctic continent. However the need for consensus means that any change happens very slowly, if at all. No doubt nations will continue to talk about marine protection, but if anything ever happens it will be a greatly watered down version of the original proposal.

This process hasn’t been helped by the extreme stance of some environmental groups. We have argued in previous blogs that the campaign to stop all fishing in the Ross Sea has done more harm than good to the marine protection proposal. It has only succeeded in pushing the Russians, Chinese and Ukrainians further away from doing a deal.

Why wait? Do it here!

Given that 95% of New Zealand is underwater, the fact that we protect as little as 1% is a disgrace. Compare this to roughly a third of our land. Earlier this year Nick Smith established more marine reserves around our subantarctic islands. This was a step forward, but as yet we don’t protect any of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – the area of ocean between 12 and 200 nautical miles offshore. This is the bulk of our ocean territory.

New Zealand has a huge area of ocean under our control – by some counts we have the 4th largest EEZ in the world thanks to the Kermedecs to our north and the subantarctics to the south. In fact, in the south our EEZ almost joins up with the Ross Dependency. While our southern ocean doesn’t contain as many toothfish as the Ross Sea, it is still an important part of the world’s oceans.

Pew, WWF and Forest and Bird have been campaigning for a marine reserve surrounding the Kermedecs, which would be one of the largest in the world. This would certainly be better than nothing, however the ideal would be to repeat the process our government pioneered in Antarctica. This was ground breaking – pulling together all the scientific and economic information on our ocean to get the maximum environmental benefit with the minimum impact on the existing fishery.

If we ran a similar process here, the Government wouldn’t have to consult or agree with other countries. We could implement the outcome immediately. And given the amount of ocean under our control, it could be one of the biggest, most ecologically important marine reserve systems in the world.

What is stopping us from creating more marine reserves?

Given that we have so much ocean, there is bound to be plenty of resource out there – including fish, energy, oil, ironsands and minerals (like phosphate on the Chatham Rise). There may be massive economic opportunities, and our Government knows it, which is why they have been so gung-ho in pursuing them. The risk of creating marine reserves is that it could lock up some of these potential resources.

This stance is short sighted. As many marine businesses will attest, protecting the environment would actually be good for business. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Public acceptance of exploiting resources – if we protect part of our ocean, people are more likely to accept exploiting other bits;
  • Providing an insurance policy against disasters – marine reserves are more resilient to shocks so our unique wildlife are more likely to survive in these areas;
  • Protecting our 100% Pure image;
  • Boosting our credibility as a provider of sustainable fish;
  • Providing certainty for business operators in the ocean – once we have a network of marine reserves, businesses have more certainty of where they can operate and what they can do in the ocean.

The ideal situation would be to create marine reserves as part of a full marine spatial plan. This is a similar idea to zoning, as our local government does on land. This provides certainty for all the users of the ocean – fishing, aquaculture, mining and energy as well as Joe average recreational users. We need to think and plan ahead for how we manage conflicts that can arise between users. We are seeing this spatial planning approach trialled in the Hauraki Gulf – but it remains to be seen how the process will work and what the Government will do with the outcome.

Now is the time to act on marine protection in our EEZ. Then we can think about exploiting the resources we have out there. We led the world by designing a marine protection proposal for the Ross Sea, now it is time to do it in our own ocean.

What should environmental groups be doing?

We urge all the environmental groups currently working to protect the Antarctic oceans – including Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, Pew and WWF – to refocus their resources on creating a science-based network of marine reserves inside New Zealand’s ocean zone. If the government won’t join the party then environmental groups could start working on a process with business instead.

Antarctica v Subantarctics


If New Zealand is really committed to marine conservation we should start in our own part of the ocean was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.