Over the summer break the Government announced the release of their new strategy for protecting the marine environment. Ironically, they did this by talking about the creation of recreational fishing parks, playgrounds that have nothing to do with conservation it seems.
Confused? So are we. On a closer look this new Act seems to do more for recreational fishers and oil, gas and mining interests than it does for the environment.
The good news
The legislation covering our marine reserves (those parts of our ocean where nothing can be taken) is being updated. This is long overdue – existing legislation is 40 years old and wasn’t fit for purpose in honouring our international commitments to create a representative network of marine reserves. The intention is to make it easier for marine reserves to be created.
The Government has allowed for species-specific sanctuaries, seabed reserves and recreational fishing parks (where commercial fishing is banned). Given that the purpose of the Act is to ‘enhance, protect and restore marine biodiversity’ the inclusion of recreational fishing parks seems odd.
Still, fishing parks could be good news for some recreational fishers. As part of the announcement the Government signaled that the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds will be free of commercial fishing, so the recreational fishers will have those areas to themselves. Whether that translates into more fish in the sea depends on a number of factors:
- If commercial fishers continue to catch the same amount of fish from elsewhere – fish don’t recognise boundaries;
- How many fish recreational fishers catch – more people might go out and catch more fish resulting in no improvement in overall fish stocks, and at the moment we have no idea of the recreational take as fishers don’t record their catch;
- Which species you are after – paua, crayfish and scallops are exempt, presumably because that would cost too much to compensate the commercial sector for its loss of rights.
The bad news
Now the bad news. There is rather more on this count.
1. All taxpayers are paying for some recreational fishing parks
The Government has set aside $20m to buy out commercial fishing rights in the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds. That is your money being spent, regardless of whether you fish in those areas, or at all. We’ve talked about these issues previously when the Government announced the idea during the 2014 election, so we won’t repeat ourselves here.
You wonder why paua, crayfish and scallops weren’t included? You wonder why there aren’t recreational fishing parks in every harbour like in some states of Australia? The answer to both questions is because it is too expensive. The reason Australia has more recreational fishing parks is because their recreational fishers pay a license fee. Simple.
2. Recreational fishing parks are not marine reserves
First up, these recreational fishing parks certainly aren’t marine reserves, as was summed up by this recent Herald article. They are a fisheries management tool, so it belongs in the Fisheries Act (where it already exists). As far as the environment is concerned, a dead fish is a dead fish – it doesn’t matter who killed it. As we have seen at Mimiwhangata Marine Park a recreational fishing park can be just as heavily fished as a commercial fishing zone. These issues have led some to comment that the recreational fishing parks will do more for National’s popularity than the fish population.
In fact, the proposal is for no marine reserves within these recreational fishing parks. As mentioned above, this is totally contrary to the purpose of the proposal. At the very least the Government should have put the condition that the recreational parks will only happen if recreational fishers can agree that at least 10% of all major environments in those areas will be set aside as marine reserves. That way the cash would work with the goals of the Hauraki Gulf Forum, providing an incentive for fishers to accept some level of protection in these heavily depleted areas.
3. There is no overall goal for protection
This problem is shown by the lack of a goal for protection. The Government claims that one of their objectives is:
A representative and adaptable network of MPAs [Marine Protected Areas] is created over time to enhance, protect and restore marine biodiversity in New Zealand’s territorial sea.
Other than attempting to clarify the process for creating reserves, it is hard to see what they are doing that contributes to this goal. Apparently Ministers will be applying for new marine reserves rather than the public. No funding or plan for the work to design a network of reserves has been announced. Instead they have announced they are spending $20m on recreational fishing parks that won’t help the environment at all.
Setting up reserves isn’t easy. Most people think reserves are a good idea, but few people want one on their doorstep because it stops them fishing – a classic NIMBY problem. There needs to be an incentive to set up reserves otherwise there is no chance we will get a network of reserves that is ‘representative’ of our marine environment. One way of doing that is by mandating that each region of the coastline must have a certain level of protection. Then the locals have to agree where that protection should go. As it currently stands we will more likely end up with no more reserves than we have now.
4. The EEZ is excluded
Of course most recreational fishers don’t go far from shore – so in theory it should be easier to create marine reserves far offshore. However, this possibility has also been taken off the cards. The Government proposal is only talking about protecting the territorial sea – within 12 nautical miles of the coastline. The other 188 nautical miles that make up the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) aren’t included in this plan. So there is no way of protecting the vast majority of our ocean.
In fact, it seems bizarre to include new tools like seabed reserves and species specific sanctuaries when many of our rare animals and ecosystems are more prevalent in the EEZ than in our territorial sea.
There is no apparent rationale for excluding the EEZ – the recent Kermedec decision covered the EEZ in that area. In fact, this is an about face from the 2014 election pledge that the new Act would allow for marine reserves in the EEZ. If we can fish, mine and drill in the EEZ, why can’t we protect it? The only answer we can suggest is because the Government wants to allow the oil gas and mining industries unhindered access to the EEZ.
5. Oil and gas is sacrosanct
Even in the territorial sea where protection can happen, the rights of holders of oil and gas permits are sacrosanct above all other ocean users. This is taken from the consultation document:
To provide certainty to the oil, gas and mineral mining industries, it is proposed that no category of MPA can be established in areas where there are petroleum or mineral mining, prospecting or exploration permits under the Crown Minerals Act for the life of the permit, unless the permit holder agrees.
Again, there is no rationale given for this. The rest of the document talks about the need for more information about the ocean environment and that all users need to collaborate to design the ultimate protection. Except, it seems, for the oil and gas industry. There the allowance of permits trumps everything – making that process all the more important for our ocean discussions.
One example is the future of the Maui’s dolphin – species protection will be virtually impossible given that oil and gas permits cover a large part of its range.