One for the fish

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    It’s pretty hard to accept that if the current, Waiheke-led bid for a no-take marine reserve bounding Waiheke’s north western headlands fails, only a derisory 0.3 percent of the Hauraki Gulf’s once magnificent undersea biodiversity will ever have the chance to recover as it has at Leigh over the last 30 years. 

    From a vantage point in Oneroa Village in this achingly beautiful golden summer, the blue is a sham. 

    Endangered seabird, whale, dolphin and fish populations are severely depleted and penguins and juvenile fur seals are dying of hunger. Regrettably  the authorities have made it clear they have no interest in creating further fully no-take marine reserves . This despite despairing calls from environmental scientists and citizens who have said for decades that turning the tide on the degradation of the sea floor and the gulf’s once intricate and abundant marine food chains would require meaningful protection of 30 times that area.  

    The trouble is that fishing is free stuff and – with the pressures of a city of 1.6 million – it leaves the gulf defenceless against a vast and often careless leisure fishing population and entrenched commercial interests exploiting picky overseas fish markets like Japan at any cost to remaining fish stocks and species. 

    No matter that the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act of 2000 says that the interrelationship between the Hauraki Gulf, its islands and catchments to sustain the life-supporting capacity of the Hauraki Gulf is of “national significance”. 

    Or that there have been strings of aspirational attempts at urgent protection for the Hauraki Gulf going back to 1965 when recreational divers and marine scientists worked towards the Marine Reserves Act in 1971, which was considered world-leading and, in many respects still is, providing the highest level of marine protection for underwater scenery, natural features, marine life of distinctive quality or so typical, beautiful or unique that their continued preservation is in the national interest. 

    What we got was quite the opposite – complete hubris. In 1992, Gulf News reported Auckland City’s recommendation that government left the future of the Hauraki Gulf to local authorities, big landowners united to look after their own interests and the city’s Hauraki Gulf committee was chaired, not by Gulf Islands councillor Sandra Lee but by a C&R representative from Mt Roskill.

    By 2020 key fish stocks had declined by 57 percent, snapper by 83 percent and crayfish by 78 percent. There was a near 100 percent loss of green-lipped mussels, an 88 percent loss of all shark species, a 97 percent decline in whales and dolphins and, last year, a mass die-off of juvenile fur seals.

    In 2017, and again trumpeting the critical importance of the natural values of the Hauraki Gulf, a largely self-selecting cabal of industry players and conflicting vested interests put together a non-statutory “spatial plan” for the Hauraki Gulf branded as Sea Change Tai Timu Tai Pari. Waiheke and its local board were largely excluded. The project languished as a tawdry artefact of the previous National government’s naked ambition to extract a billion-dollar fish industry out of the Hauraki Gulf, resurfacing last year as the Labour government’s plans to implement – in 2024 – Sea Change’s watered-down version of marine protection in the gulf. 

    The 2350ha Hakaimango Point to Matiatia marine reserve application, currently out for public feedback, is the last ditch, a small and fragile ark in which the last fish and their kith and kin are left in peace to breed and rebuild.

    We can still swim, traverse, anchor in and watch over their tiny refuge. There is no need or call for mass access; no shore base. There is no need to exploit it at all. The science was done and justified the high-value site. In 2015 Colmar Brunton surveyed community opinion and found 64 percent of Waiheke residents were specifically in support of the 1971 version of no-take marine reserves in the waters around Waiheke.

    Extending out towards the Noises Islets, the proposed area’s rocky reefs have retained much of the original kelp forest and significant fish species, if not the mussel beds that once carpeted and filtered the gulf and it hasn’t succumbed to the kina barrens that exist over large areas of the inner gulf.

    The impressive application for a Marine Reserve between Hakaimango Point and Matiatia under Section 5 of the 1971 act is in the name of Friends of the Hauraki Gulf chaired by long-time conservationist and former ARC chairman Mike Lee, and written by Lee with Dr Leith Duncan, who took the leading role in the successful application campaign for the most recent other marine reserve at Te Matuku on Waiheke’s western coastline 30 years ago.

    Notice of the application for the marine reserve appears in our public notices section on page 51 of this issue, along with details on how to make a submission. The period for feedback closes on 20 March. • Liz Waters

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