An Auckland and Waikato marine area will need at least 30 per cent of its waters turned into reserve, the end of marine dumping and better fishery quota management in place in order to restore its almost barren seabeds and reefs, a panel of experts say.
The Hauraki Gulf, covering more than 12 nautical miles of Auckland and Coromandel waters, is depleted of sea life.
More than 200 people gathered in Whitianga recently to hear anecdotal and research-based evidence on the state of Coromandel waters and what can be done to improve it.
With much of the seascape now covered in kina – which flourishes in the absence of snapper and crayfish – a panel of scientists, conservationists, iwi leaders and local officials are calling for a collaboration between community, Government, local bodies and fishery industries to restore a once abundant taonga.
More than 200 people attended the Protecting the Sea on Our Doorstep event on Whitianga.
“Hauraki Gulf’s story is not a great one,” Hauraki Gulf Forum CEO Alex Rogers says.
Speaking to a packed crowd in Whitianga, he says the gulf was under significant pressure.
The 2020 State of our Gulf report, produced every three years, depicts a collapsed ecosystem due to overfishing, invasive fishing practices, marine dumping and sediment and nutrient runoff, he says.
Since 2000, snapper, tarakihi and crayfish have been at, or have fallen to, levels requiring action to actively rebuild stocks.
Scallop, mussel, crayfish and paua populations have also been declining for decades.
A quarter of fish in the Hauraki Gulf have also been found to have plastic in their guts.
“The Hauraki Gulf has become a kina barren which is a sign of an ecosystem out of whack.”
While kina are endemic to the gulf, he says, they are “rampaging through kelp beds because they no longer have the predators to keep them in check”.
This destroys the habitat for many fish that need shelter, particularly in their juvenile stages, he says.
“There once was 1000 square kilometres of shellfish beds and reefs, which would filter the gulf to make the water crystal clear.
“We would like to see this restored.”
He calls for 30 per cent of the gulf to be protected, continued riparian planting in catchment areas and the end of marine dumping near the Marine Park.
His words are echoed by many of the speakers.
More reserves on the Hauraki Gulf would benefit not only the ecosystem, but would also benefit fisheries, University of Auckland marine scientist Dr Tim Haggit says.
Having collected data on crayfish and snapper since 1995, Haggit has recorded a decline in rock lobster and snapper populations across three reserves in New Zealand – Leigh, Tawharanui and Hahei.
Through tracking, he’s been able to identify that the decline in snapper and lobster in the reserves is mostly due to them migrating outside the reserve area.
Egg production in the reserve, however, has increased with lobster having a 23 per cent higher success rate and snapper a 27 per cent higher success than outside the reserve.
This is due to more legal-sized species in the reserve.
Ngāti Hei kaumātua Joe Davis says Ngāti Hei knew it needed to lead the scallop kaupapa, but to see it evolve into a korero on all species in Coromandel waters has been great.
Haggit says to reproduce the same number of eggs a 64cm snapper could produce, there would have to be 36 30cm snappers to have the same reproduction output.
“Imagine if we had a network of reserves placed accordingly. You’d argue that you have better fishing.
“It’s not about locking up areas, but it’s about ensuring you’ve got a bank for future fisheries.”
Waikato Regional Council representative Denis Tegg’s opinion, however, differs.
He says eliminating bottom trawling and putting more costs on the commercial fisheries should be prioritised, but that the push for change would need to come from the public first.
That’s because of the 13 members that make up the Waikato Regional Council, he says “only three electorates have a coast” making it “difficult to get marine issues to the front and centre”.
Councils do have authority to impose control over fisheries resources under the RMA, such as protection of the indigenous biodiversity.
An increase in poaching Coromandel's favourite seafood delicacy has led to the decline of spiny red lobster from Te Whanganui A Hei marine reserve.
In this case, however, Tegg says it would be unlikely that the regional council would do this because “Waikato currently, aside from Hahei, still has a lack of data” to prove a case if the decision was challenged in the Environmental Court.
“Personally, I’ve found the response from the council a bit underwhelming and I want to talk about how you can correct that,” Tegg says.
“The regional council plan to map habitats around the Mercury Islands up to 20 metres and will carry out aerial photography studies.
“That’s a good start, but there’s a long way to go, and we’re just starting on that journey.
He encourages the public to put pressure on local and central government, join a harbour care group, lobby ministers and make a submission to the regional council’s Waikato coastal plan, a report that hasn’t been reviewed in 20 years.
“You have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence the Waikato coastal plan.
“If we want marine protection, we have to demand it. People power is a very powerful force.”
The event, Protecting the Sea on Our Doorstep, was inspired by Coromandel iwi Ngāti Hei’s recent rāhui on scallops in Opito Bay over the summer period which saw an upheaval of support from locals leading to a snapshot survey of scallop population numbers.
Since then nationally many iwi and locals have followed suit, calling for rahui in their rohe, as well as an extension to marine protection areas.
Other speakers at the event included local scientist Thomas Everth, Ngāti Hei kaumātua Joe Davis, Noises Island Trust’s Sue Neureuter, Sea Change co-chairwoman Alison Henry and New Zealand Rock Lobster Fishery Council chief operating officer Daryl Sykes.
Sir Michael Fay also attended in support of his conservation aspirations for Ahuahu/Great Mercury Island.
A panel discussion chaired by local environmentalist Pamela Grealy was held afterwards, giving the audience an opportunity to ask questions directed towards: Rogers, Haggitt, Tegg, Henry from Sea Change, LegaSea, Whitianga Fishing Club, Darrel Bird from Dive Zone Whitianga and Sykes.