The Oceans Policy: managing NZ's marine environment

  • Pete Hodgson
Fisheries and Aquaculture

The ocean defines New Zealand.

We lie at the centre of the watery hemisphere. To travel abroad, we must take a long journey over water.

Today’s air travellers are over the sea long before they have reached cruising altitude, and they stay there for hours on end. Yesterday’s travellers became the first humans on these islands only after epic sea voyages.

To define New Zealand as a western nation is not the whole truth. Aotearoa/New Zealand forms an apex of Polynesia. We are two large rocks, and a few others, in the bottom left hand corner of the world’s largest ocean.

This western nation has a range of cultures, and it is the culture of the ancient mariners that make us unique. It shapes our special identity in the world. It draws significantly from the sea.

Our economy is defined by oceans.

The tourism industry thrives on our island character. Our fishing industry is vibrant, growing and making measurable progress towards sustainability.

But our land-based economy is also defined by the oceans. Besides our latitude, our temperate climate is the result of our being surrounded by water. It means we are the only western economy still based on primary production.

Our people are defined by oceans. We are islanders. We are mindful of our endless coastline: most of us live on its edge. We swim, sail, surf, snorkel. We windsurf, waterski and wade. We fish and we frolic. Our marine environment is central to our identity as New Zealanders.

Today I am going to outline the Government’s plans for the development of an Oceans Policy.

It will be a policy as significant as the resource management law reform process begun 15 years ago.

That process brought us the Resource Management Act. Some would like this process to bring us a "blue RMA", but that's not necessarily where we're going. We are not starting out for such a predetermined destination.

We begin simply with a recognition of the value of our oceans, a recognition of the growing pressures on the marine environment, and a determination to address problems before they become crises.

This is a policy about new opportunities – how we make room for them, and how we ensure they are sustainable.

Our Exclusive Economic Zone is huge. It is one of the largest in the world and it will become even bigger, later this decade, when we have mapped the seabed to the edge of the continental shelf.

Attempts to gauge the value of our ocean in terms of goods and services, including ecological services, have turned up mind-boggling figures. A 1997 study by two economists estimated the value of marine ecosystem services at $184 billion a year.

Our ocean has immense future value too, as we progressively unlock its secrets. If we look further at intrinsic and cultural value, we quickly conclude that meaningful measurement is impossible.

Talking about oceans conjures images of vastness. Huge expanses of water, great depths, teeming life.

Our oceans are out-sized and out there. They're so much bigger than us that it's easy to assume they will always be big enough for us, big enough to survive anything we throw at them or pull out of them.

The Government’s decision to develop an Oceans Policy challenges that. Vast or not, ecological strains have begun to show in our oceans. Conflicts in their use are erupting more and more frequently.

If there is one simple reason why an Oceans Policy is a good idea, it is that those strains and conflicts will increase. That’s a certainty.

We know very little about our oceans. I reckon our knowledge of our marine environment is no better than European knowledge of our terrestrial environment was 120 years ago.

Most marine species remain unidentified. Underwater bio-diversity is a big deal; if only we knew how big.

But as we begin to address that knowledge gap, science helps us identify those ecological strains. The quota management system for fisheries, which began its development about 20 years ago, was an early policy response. So was the Marine Reserves Act. Whaling stopped nearly four decades ago, but we are still learning how to protect our smallest cetacean, Hectors dolphin.

We have more species of marine birdlife than any other jurisdiction. Some are flourishing; some approach extinction.

We have begun to understand how deforestation or roading can silt our harbours and damage our coastal fisheries.

As Government has grown over the last century and a half so has the number of departments of state involved in the marine environment. It now stands at fourteen, and there are at least 18 pieces of domestic legislation governing our relationship with them in some way or another.

Throughout that time Maori have both asserted and lived their special relationship with the sea and what it offers. Like modern society they developed a regulatory approach to the use of the commons, displaying a prescience that took European culture the best part of a century to mimic.

Maori have rights, many of which are now enshrined in law, that do not extend to others. These rights are drawn directly and unequivocally from the Treaty of Waitangi. Modern expression of these rights, and their exercise in a modern pluralistic society, is still developing.

The development of an Oceans Policy will affect the rights of everyone who uses the ocean and everyone who values it, for whatever reason.

That, of course, is all of us.

Many of these rights are defined – property rights for fishers, short or long term occupation rights for port companies, or marine farmers, or regatta organisers. Rights for shipping, in the form of freedom of passage. And coastal access rights for all New Zealanders through the various forms of the Queen's Chain.

For New Zealanders, access to water is taken, properly, as a given.

Over the years we have developed exclusions too – marine reserves, speed restrictions, commercial fishing restrictions, a raft of environmental law.

Conflicts have begun to show with increasing frequency.

In Auckland the list of conflicts has started to grow almost inexorably. This is part of the impetus behind the recently passed Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act, which establishes a new forum in an attempt to better resolve such conflicts. It seeks to promote the wellbeing of the local marine environment through integrated management.

In this part of the country Cook Strait ferries raise issues, as do Cook Strait electricity and communication cables, as does the proposed South Coast marine reserve.

In the top of the South the Resource Management Act and the Fisheries Act have collided over space allocation for marine farming. The result will be managed by the Environment Court - but only in the meantime.

In Fiordland, to give an up-to-the-minute example, a company is about to begin submarine tourism that will impact, favourably or not, on the many other activities co-existing there.

We have laws to deal with these matters. Plenty of them. Quite often they work.

We have plenty of other marine policy initiatives underway – the aquaculture discussion paper, the recreational fishing discussion paper, the marine reserves discussion paper.

But do we have overarching goals well defined? What are the points of reference for this complex mixture of law and practice? Have we ever collectively identified and expressed the range of cultural, economic, environmental or social values that apply? Or the range of interests?

Have we ever looked forward 20 years, and identified the opportunities and threats we might encounter?

Imagine a proposed deep sea wave energy platform, or a deep sea wind turbine farm or a deep sea marine farm, all of which are technologies currently under development, coming up against a shipping lane or an area of black smoker research, or a terakihi ground or someone’s cliff top view.

Ask whether marine geophysical exploration damages fish, and if so what if anything should be done about it. Ask whether using the ocean as a carbon dioxide sink may alter ocean currents.

Ask how deep sea cage fish farming might be spatially managed. Or whether we need a bio-prospecting policy to head off DNA pirates. Or whether biosecurity concerns should be managed by the deliberate introduction of predator species.

These are the kind of questions an Oceans Policy will help us answer. The alternative of waiting till we run head-on into problems is not one this Government is prepared to accept.

Some features of this policy development process will remain constant over the two year and eight month time frame.

The first is that the focus will be on the marine environment above all other things. How we value it, how we use it, how we protect it, how we ensure its quality centuries from now.

The second is that the process must be democratic. It must involve everyone who wishes to be involved – Maori, local government, sector groups, individuals.

That's not just because democracy is a good thing. It's also because the job is too big for a Government to tackle on its own.

The third is that this policy will develop in stages.

We must define the vision, design the process to achieve the vision, and deliver the vision. Three stages, the best part of three years, and three separate work programmes. Define, design, deliver.

Today we launch Stage I – defining the vision.

It will last a year. It is broad brush. It is an opportunity for New Zealanders young and old, wet and dry, to focus on what they want to achieve by managing the marine environment. To confront the fact that engaging in these issues is now necessary. To learn. To think through their relationship with the sea, and to ask what relationship they want for their children’s children.

It will not be easy. There's no pixie dust available. Two particular challenges loom.

The first is that identifying existing and potential conflicts means that sooner or later we will need to order, or re-order, priorities. If we develop goals and principles, and if they are valid and considered and agreed, then sooner or later, somewhere, they will bite. Inevitably some interest will have to give way to, or learn to share with, another.

This is a challenge to all users of our oceans to make some hard choices about what's really important to you and what responsibility you are prepared to accept for the greater good.

The second challenge is within each of us.

Some existing marine conflicts have seen players reach for their prejudices, their public relations consultants, their lobbyists, their lawyers, or their preferred journalists. The Oceans Policy process invites something different.

It says that this is big picture time. It is time to design the future.

The disputes of the present will continue. They need to run their course.

But here’s a Government committed to developing a policy framework that will one day put such disputes in a wider, helpful context. It will ensure that the decisions made about them are coherent, that they all head in the same direction.

New Zealanders are being invited to help define the goals and principles to build that context. To define a vision, no less.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance. So let's not blow it.

Back at the office we have made a start. A Ministerial Group has been established. I convene it. It embraces the portfolios of Commerce, Conservation, Energy, Environment, Fisheries, Foreign Affairs, Local Government, Maori Affairs and Science.

Of course it affects other portfolios – Biosecurity, Communications, Customs, Defence, Land Information, Maritime Safety and Transport. Indeed almost all portfolios are affected.

The driving force behind this initiative is the Prime Minister. She was moved to take action on reading the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report on marine management, presented soon after the election. It made the case for an Oceans Policy strongly and coherently.

Back at the office we have been up to other things as well. An early decision was to deploy a group of probably five smart New Zealanders to form a Ministerial Advisory Committee. Nominations open today and close in a month.

These people will lead and facilitate the hui, meetings, discussions, phone calls and no doubt radio talkbacks needed to distil and finally define the goals and principles we seek for managing the marine environment.

Note the words 'lead' and 'facilitate'. These people won't define the vision. They will run a process allowing the vision to be defined by the public.

Nomination forms for the advisory committee are available from DOC or TPK offices around the country, or from my office.

They are also on the Oceans Policy website, which opens for business today. The address is easy: It has the advisory committee's terms of reference, early Cabinet papers and other useful information. It's going to be a great way to keep in touch. Please visit.

So there we have it. Consider stage one of the Oceans Policy launched.

You can reflect that only Australia and Canada have started ahead of us and you can feel for them as their respective federal systems mean progress is still modest.

You can think forward three years and ask yourselves: what will be the outcome of this process? Will it be a big rewrite of the law? Will it be a National Policy Statement, or a sort of marine constitution, or a manifesto for further work?

In all likelihood it will be more than one of those, but of course those are not the key questions.

The key questions are: what is your vision of the future of the marine environment? What are your goals and principles?

Three years from now, when we are all a lot wiser on these matters than we are today, we can deliver what may well be the world’s first fully fledged Oceans Policy. One that could only have come from New Zealand, a nation defined by its ocean.

Then, further into the future, we can watch it in operation and take a little pride in the part we played in its development, and in making it work.

Thank you.