New Zealand marine reserves too small

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By Jay Harkness, Forest & Bird, J.Harkness [at] forestandbird.org.nz

"Fish, fish, the family dish." It's a familiar rhyme to the postwar generation, but less so to a member of Generation X.

Fish is not the plentiful family favourite it once was, and that's a sign of a serious conservation problem.

There are plenty of other signs, too, that the overall number of fish in New Zealand's waters is in steep decline. If it continues, we will be responsible for a huge failure in our duty to care for our environment – and we will have lost a big part of what it is to be a New Zealander.

There are a host of perfectly workable ways to avoid this, however. Marine reserves are a critical part of doing that.

Earlier this month, the Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, announced that he had approved five new reserves for the West Coast.

These will undoubtedly be a good thing in many ways. But, sadly, it is very much a case of only being "better than nothing".

Dr Smith proclaimed that the addition of the new reserves would double the area protected by mainland reserves.

But what he did not mention is that none of the new reserves, if given the final sign-off by his colleagues, are big enough or deep enough to include an entire ecosystem.

One reserve covers just 16 hectares. As every animal in an ecosystem relies on every other animal in that ecosystem, to some extent at least, the proposals are seriously flawed.

Dr Smith also did not mention how little of New Zealand's territorial and economic sea areas are set aside for nature alone, especially given how many New Zealanders spend a lot of their free time fishing, and how many of us earn a living from fishing or tourism.

A Colmar Brunton poll once asked a sample of New Zealanders how much of this country's territorial and economic waters they thought were protected by marine reserves.

The averaged answer was 30 per cent. The averaged figure for how much area should be protected by reserves was 36 per cent – more than a third.

The survey group got it dramatically wrong.

Their mistake may have stemmed from the relatively well-known fact that a third of New Zealand's land area is managed for conservation purposes.

Only 0.3 per cent of the total marine area this country is responsible for is protected.

This will increase, by a tiny tenth of a per cent, once some gazetted reserves around the Sub-Antarctic Islands pass into law.

New Zealanders – and our marine species – clearly need the benefits reserves bring, for the sake of the local economic benefits as well as the recreational opportunities.

Both are readily quantifiable. The science shows us that marine reserves have a spillover effect that can only benefit the fishing sector.

The authors of a study of the benefits of reserves to the Great Barrier Reef, published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, found that – five years after the reserves had been created – fish populations in the whole ecosystem had increased considerably.

According to the Department of Conservation, up to 300,000 people visit the Goat Island marine reserve north of Auckland New Zealand's most popular reserves – each year.

Many of these people are tourists, bringing with them the overseas dollars our economy relies on so heavily.

If the Goat Island reserve were not there, we would just have another – beautiful – North Auckland beach; busy, but nowhere near that busy.

Forest & Bird is calling for at least 30 per cent of New Zealand's territorial and economic waters to be protected.

By international standards, this is not high, and incidentally is less than the average of what the survey participants thought was appropriate.

Such a conservancy/open-water ratio would attract tourists, give New Zealanders the access to marine environments that they so clearly love, and boost fish populations, for commercial and recreational fishers.

Our lawmakers need to start accounting for that, rather than being in the thrall of the small number in the fishing community who routinely oppose every marine reserve ever mooted.

Without these reserves, those holiday trophy photos will irretrievably become a thing of the past.

This piece was originally published in The Dominion Post on 26 March 2013.

Jay Harkness is the communication officer for Forest & Bird, based in Wellington, New Zealand.

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