On our watch

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    We have been needing active, energetic, scientific work to regenerate the underwater ecology of the Hauraki Gulf for decades and the Matiatia to Hakaimango Point no-take marine reserve proposed by Friends of the Hauraki Gulf burst on a fairly dismal scene two months ago, a breath of fresh air in the wake of yet another devastating Hauraki Gulf Forum report on the state of the Gulf.

    The proposal conjures up a vision of saving and nurturing the area’s especially diverse array of high-quality marine habitats: a unique series of rocky reefs, deep inlets and soft sediment bays, still with its richly dominant kelp diversity, virtually free of kina and with thriving invertebrate communities and bivalve beds. 

    Pelagic and reef fish, especially prized and commonly targeted finfish species such as snapper (tamure), kahawai and kingfish (haku) as well as the benthic red gurnard (kumukumu) are present everywhere within the proposed boundaries. 

    Above the water, it stretches towards the northern horizon and provides an important feeding ground for seabirds and already hard-pressed marine mammals on the Firth of Thames tideline. 

    In 2016, marine biologist Tim Haggitt was commissioned by the Waiheke Local Board and Auckland Council to survey five possible marine reserve sites around Waiheke’s coastline, concluding that the proposed reserve is by far the best choice for habitat repair and ecosystem regeneration, especially of key species and through larval spread the restoration of marine biota in the inner Hauraki Gulf.

    Already completed science and data for the proposed 2500-hectare site makes the area a compelling possibility. Crayfish – currently functionally extinct in the inner gulf – stalking in safety through healthy kelp forests? Shearwaters back and nesting on Waiheke’s islets? Whale and dolphin numbers back up from 97 percent below prehuman biomass? 

    The new reserve would be the first in 20 years and there is currently less than one percent of the Hauraki Gulf area under marine reserve protection. Official targets talk of three or five percent protection and aspirations from the wider conservation community say we need to be aiming for up to 40 percent.

    The draft no-take marine reserve plan has been lodged under the Marine Reserves Act (1971) by the Waiheke-based Friends of the Hauraki Gulf and has been welcomed by the Department of Conservation. 

    There are gritty details we need to work out in advance but we learned stuff, back through all the years when the possibility of more Waiheke marine reserves based on the demonstrably successful model trialled at Leigh nearly 50 years ago rose and then, often mysteriously, sank again. The learnings will enable the new application to avoid pitfalls and tailor the application to the Waiheke site.  

    The current no-take marine reserve model is flexible and no two existing marine reserves are the same so we can make the rules in advance on how it might relate to the neighbouring land. Or vice versa. We can avoid the worst excesses of distant future shore visitor numbers because we don’t physically have the infrastructure or the ferry service for bulk tourism with the likelihood of making ferry access even more unreliable for existing high-end visitor businesses including restaurants and vineyards. 

    Waiheke’s largely unsung marine reserve at Te Matuku doesn’t have a shore base or land-based commercial exploitation and neither does this one need it. Overnight yachts and launches in Owhanake could steam a mere 10 minutes to the edge of the reserve if they must have fish for breakfast. The recreational fishing status of either Matiatia or Oneroa is unchanged.

    No-take marine reserves do not restrict access – snorkelling and diving and the yachts that use the vital north-west facing Owhanake Bay anchorage, for example – but commercial concessions to exploit fragile remaining habitats can be managed or prohibited. 

    This one is for the fish.

    And we have the will. The Waiheke Local Board in 2014, under the chairmanship of Paul Walden, obtained a Colmar Brunton poll of island residents and landowners on the vexed issue of marine reserves. It found that 64 percent of us on Waiheke – 67 percent if we are Mäori – wanted no-take marine reserves to address the woeful undersea landscape of the Gulf. 

    The rather dubious Sea Change consultative process, sponsored by Auckland Council and serving the commercial aspirations of central government, has lain around for six years and proposes to do so for two more years. In that time, the Auckland supercity has grown by between 40,000 and 80,000 a year from migration alone. 

    The clock is ticking, and it’s our watch. • Liz Waters

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