In the gulf’s hot seat

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    John Meeuwsen isn’t expecting his new role as the head of the Hauraki Gulf Forum to be an easy ride. 

    A member of the Waiheke Local Board for the last five years and an advocate for more grass-roots participation in local community governance, this week he replaced Hauraki District mayor and longtime Forum chairman John Tregidga.

    The Forum authors three-yearly reports on the ‘State of the Gulf’ haven’t made good reading. The latest, released in March, says the health of the gulf, though improving on some measures, is still regressing under the pressures of rapid population growth, inappropriate fishing methods and over fishing and levels of sediment, nutrient and minerals that cannot be coped with naturally. 

    The 2014 report said changing “the combined effects of suppressed environmental state, multiple and cumulative impacts, and high and increasing pressure will be technically and politically challenging”. 

    John says the ongoing challenge for the Forum has been its lack of any real power.  

    “Its effectiveness must therefore be judged by the quality of its advocacy and persuasion and the credibility – and poignancy – of the information it puts out there to inform both politicians and the public,” he says of the Forum that  includes representatives from local and regional councils from as far south as the Waikato, as well as iwi and government agencies. 

    “Its other core role is to work for “integrated management” among those central and local government agencies which are formally represented on the Forum under the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act. That membership is naturally mindful of needing cooperation and the goodwill of the agencies they represent, making the Forum naturally cautious in its deliberations.  

    “Not enough has changed since 2014 but I must stress that I don’t attribute that reality to the former leadership of the Forum,” he says. “In the face of the increasingly clear evidence, I believe an increasing urgency is only now emerging in the responsiveness of the agencies represented on the Forum.” 

    The Auckland Council’s regional council capabilities have matured since its inception seven years ago, especially in the technical areas needed to inform and manage solutions to complex environmental issues, he says. Waikato Regional Council is also becoming far more proactive and they are working more closely with the councils in their regions, he says, and he has spoken to councillors in the area who are also very clear there is an issue with dairy intensification and runoff that must be responded to.

    He also expects a greater responsiveness from central government, with Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage promising to attend the Forum’s next meeting. She has also been meeting with other Ministers with an interest in the gulf in order to respond to both the evidence provided in this year’s State of the Gulf report and to the Sea Change consultation project.  

    The government has also re-established an agency dedicated to fisheries, with Fisheries New Zealand and  Biosecurity New Zealand having wider responsibilities than the unit that was part of MAF. 

    “Overall I expect more engagement with central government than has been the norm to date,” John says.

    “Much of what is in the Sea Change Spatial Plan report is appropriate for implementation as soon as practicable and we should build on its major contributions to clarify what needs to be done. 

    “The report came out in May 2017 and yet it recommended actions with major implications for many parties which were very, very ambitious and quite difficult to achieve politically and practically. 

    Many targets were for this year.  “Even an impatient fellow like me recognised that that was impractical. Budget processes, which for local government must involve extensive consultation, are inherently protracted and aligning business as usual across a large number of agencies takes time – and agreement,” says John, whose business career has included extensive work at policy and implementation levels of government.

    Both Auckland and Waikato Regional Councils have built work programmes around the Sea Change report, and Auckland Council has set up a dedicated Sea Change Political Reference Group, of which John is a member, to oversee the Council’s responses.  Waikato attends its meeting and works with the technical officers supporting it. “Meanwhile I have been urging Forum members to work with those many Sea Change recommendations which are seen as clearly relevant to the Forum’s objectives,” he says.      

    “Many of the responses needed to improve the state of the gulf are expensive and will take time. The Forum and many others recognise that more and more effective “Integrated management” is now vital if we are to get on top of both remediation/prevention and the effects of growth.  

    “I hope to contribute to improvement in that integration in my role as chair.”
    • Liz Waters

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