THE NEW ZEALAND UNDERWATER ASSOCIATION

  • Nick Smith
Conservation

CARDIGAN BAY LOUNGE, EPSOM STAND, ALEXANDRA PARK RACEWAY, AUCKLAND

Thank you for inviting me to address you today.

It is a pleasure to be involved in formally opening the New Zealand Underwater Association conference this year. It is a unique opportunity to talk about some of the conservation issues confronting us in the marine environment. I also want to take this opportunity to make an announcement with regard to the future of the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve.

Firstly I must thank the Association for the opportunity to go scuba diving for the first time last weekend. I was unsure if it was a good idea to go diving with one of the key interest groups in this contentious issue. The thought of it gave me nightmares. I had visions of being trapped underwater, having my mouthpiece ripped out, and having some forceful sign language as to whether I would allow fishing to continue. I am pleased to report that Dave Allen was far more subtle in expressing his viewpoint.

That unique experience helped focus my mind on the whole universe that only a few New Zealanders get to enjoy. Seeing that underwater world for the first time, reminded me of the first time I set eyes on the national icon of Mt Cook. What we have in this country's underwater world is as equally impressive as anything which is above the high tide mark. Yet our conservation values are completely different.

In January in my first speech as Minister of Conservation, I set out my ambitions for the portfolio. One of these was the task of taking the conservation ethic beyond the shores. Conservation on land is mainstream politics today. Two or three decades ago, you were considered a bit weird if you were into saving trees and birds. Today it is not only the norm, but uncivilised to do anything else. The same revolution in attitudes is required in the marine environment.

We have set aside over 30 percent of the land area of New Zealand for conservation purposes but with respect to the coastline and the sea it is only a tiny fraction of that. Less than one percent of the sea we control is set aside for conservation purposes. We must do better. As Isaac Asimov noted "Life originated in the sea, and about eighty percent of it is still there."

We have the greatest diversity of seabird species in the world (76). Almost a third of all native bird species depend on the ocean for food. 75% of the world's species of penguins and a range of albatross and other sea birds that are found only in this corner of the globe. Below water the diversity is equally dramatic. Many of the species we have are endemic, that is they are found nowhere else on earth. This makes New Zealand biologically very distinctive, and unique in the world. For instance New Zealand waters have approximately:

3000 marine molluscs of which 90% are endemic
900 sea weeds of which 43% are endemic
83 rock pool fish of which 65% are endemic
900 other fish of which 5% are endemic

Furthermore, in terms of marine mammals, our waters provide a habitat for half of the world's species of whales and dolphins. 32 species of whale have been recorded in New Zealand waters. These figures give some picture of the outstanding wealth of our seas, and the international responsibility we have for managing that richness. We have the fourth largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world, spanning from the sub-Antarctic to the sub-tropical. Lifting the culture from exploitation to conservation is a bumpy and controversial political path. If we reflect on whaling, we have already come a very long way. It was only in 1964 that the last commercial whaling took place in our waters, when 440 minke were slaughtered north-east of Kaikoura. Through a huge international political campaign involving millions of people, the tide turned on the whaling industry. Today, in Kaikoura, a new type of industry has established to view these magnificent creatures.

And just so you don't write me off as some radical greenie who wants to turn the fishing industry on its head, can I remind you that, in addition to being a keen recreational fisherman, as MP for Nelson, I represent New Zealand's largest fishing port.

Thousands of jobs depend on a well-managed and sustainable fishing industry. But just as we do not use every square inch of New Zealand's land for producing wool, meat, wood and milk, and set aside parks for nature's sake, we should do the same when it comes to the sea. Persuading both recreational and commercial fishermen of the merits of this approach is fraught with controversy. Howls of protest that one is being denied one's birthright goes with every initiative.

This is reflected in the progress that has been made in creating marine reserves. The Marine Reserves Act was passed in 1971, but it took four years before our first marine reserve was created at Leigh. The second marine reserve was created at Poor Knights Islands but, in response to fishing objections, recreational fishing was allowed in 95 percent of the reserve. Since that time, a further 11 reserves have been gazetted and 10 of these have been this decade. In my own electorate, Tonga Marine Reserve, adjacent to the Abel Tasman National Park, was gazetted in 1993. We are on the move south with proposals currently before me in Kaikoura, Akaroa and Stewart Island. A number of others are in the pipeline and will need to be carefully examined.

Despite the fact that I am an enthusiast for marine reserves, they simply don't work unless they have community support. Equally so, we need to give careful consideration to their boundaries and to the legitimate interests of recreational and commercial fishermen. We still need to have places where ordinary New Zealanders can legally enjoy a day's recreational fishing. Sometimes people get frustrated at the time it takes to work through the contentious issues involved in creating marine reserves. But we must always respect the fact that these are public areas owned by all New Zealanders. People have a perfectly legitimate right to express their view and to have it heard. That does not take away the difficult choice that finally must be made. With respect to the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, and with the benefit of hindsight, we did not do the consultation process properly in 1994. The Department of Conservation has gone to extraordinary lengths to get it right this time round. The response to the 1995 discussion document was extensive. Over 3800 people took the opportunity to give their views. Over 2000 people were from outside Northland, reflecting the fact that these islands are not just a local asset but a national treasure. It is significant that over 300 submissions were from people overseas. Many of the submissions were from organisations, collectively representing tens of thousands of New Zealanders. While the majority of submissions favoured no fishing, it is the quality rather than quantity of submissions that influenced my decision. I also deliberately took the extra step of meeting with key interest groups and visiting the reserve site. Making the decision on a reserve without seeing it makes about as much sense a celibate priest giving sex education lessons. Last weekend I met charter boat operators, recreational fishers, their Club representative, iwi, as well as conservationists and divers. There are three issues on which there was a strong consensus across a wide range of submissions. The first is that the Poor Knights Island Marine reserve is a very special place. The different marine habitats are spectacular - with submarine caves, archways, steeply sloping walls, deep pinnacles and sand flats. These places are home to a huge diversity of plants and animals. The warm East Auckland Current brings a strong sub-tropical influence to the ecology of this otherwise temperate environment. And as I found, the place is rightly renowned for its clear, warm water. The second point on which there was strong agreement was that the existing rules do not work. The complexity of the current fishing regulations make them impractical to enforce and so ineffective in practice. This is exacerbated by the fact that new fishing methods have evolved since the fishing regulations were first promulgated back in 1981.

The third dimension of this issue on which there was a consensus was that the level of fishing effort has grown, and will continue to grow. Population increases and tourism growth indicates that the number of people visiting the reserve will continue to increase, and will put additional pressure on the reserve. The effect of the America's cup will no doubt increase the interest in New Zealanders taking to the water. As a result, visitor numbers in the area of the Hauraki Gulf and further north are likely to rise.

Views are polarised on both the impact of recreational fishing and its appropriateness within a marine reserve. A large number of submissions said that Poor Knights Island Marine Reserve was a Clayton's marine reserve, in that it allowed fishing to continue. While it is not possible to determine the exact quantum of fish caught annually it is clear that it is many tonnes. It is also clear that the ability to control by-catch of non pelagic species is very difficult. I have concluded that there is a negative impact from recreational fishing on the marine life within the reserve. The recreational fishermen say that the extent of this effect on marine life can not be accurately determined and so fishing should be allowed to continue until such time as detailed quantitative data exists. The great difficulty with this argument is that our understanding of the marine environment is very crude. I know the great dilemma my colleague, the Minister of Fisheries, faces in setting quota levels without accurate data on fish biomass. However, history is littered with decision makers who have put-off making hard decisions on the basis of needing still more data. I tend to favour the precautionary approach. If we are uncertain about the outcome we should err on the side of nature, not of the side of man.

The bottom line on which I base my decision is the Marine Reserves Act itself. Section 3 (1) of the Marine Reserves Act clearly indicates that the purpose of a marine reserve is to preserve the marine life for scientific study where it is of such distinctive quality, or so typical, or beautiful, or unique that their continued preservation is in the national interest. It goes on further and states that the marine reserve shall, as far as possible, be protected and preserved. The provisions allowing fishing are subservient to this over-riding purpose and should only be allowed where there is negligible impact (and after having regard to the purposes specified in Section 3(1)).

For this reason it is my decision that all recreation fishing in the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve should cease. The opportunity to fish in the Reserve, which has been granted by previous Ministers will be withdrawn.

The timing of the implementation of this decision is important. I recognise it will have a significant impact on a number of people who are both recreational fishermen or who run charter businesses. For this reason, it is my intention to phase-out the present fishing rules. I was advised by the recreational fishermen and the charter operators that there was strong agreement that Aorangi Island should be a no-fishing zone, and that this could take place immediately. For this reason, the ban on all fishing in that part of the Marine Reserve surrounding Aorangi Island will take effect on the first of October 1997. A new Gazette notice will be issued to ensure that until the first of October, the current fishing rules will continue, For the rest of the Reserve, this would be too rapid. It would have an unreasonably adverse impact on charter operators whose busy season is about to commence. I am also sensitive to the recreational fishing activity that occurs over the Christmas period, and the competitions held over Easter. People will need time to adjust to this new regime. The exclusion of fishing in the area surrounding Tawhiti Rahi Island and the Pinnacles to the south will take effect on the first of October 1998. This gives a further full season for the charter operators to have some area in which to fish and adjust their businesses. Thus, from 1 October 1998, all fishing will be prohibited in the Reserve. I acknowledge that for some this will be too slow, but I want to go the extra mile to be reasonable to the recreational and charter operators.

There is one further important aspect of this decision. The management of a marine reserve requires on-going consultation with the affected communities. There are further issues regarding the setting-up of on-going research and monitoring of the reserve and in enforcement in which the Department of Conservation needs support and advice. For this reason, I have instructed the Department to establish a marine issues advisory committee as a sub-committee of the Northland Conservation Board. This forum will be made up of key stakeholders, including recreational fishermen, charter operators, diving interests and tangata whenua.

Can I thank you again for your patience in hearing me out on this important issue and wish you well for your conference. For those of you on field trips to Marine Reserves, may you dive safely and return inspired to help in extending further the still-fragile network of protected reserves we have in New Zealand. Can I conclude with a quote from US writer Edwin Teale, that I think beautifully sums up the debate on this issue. "The long fight to save wild beauty represents democracy at its best. It requires citizens to practice the hardest of virtues - self-restraint!"