Where have all the fish gone? We ate them

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    The great and the good of conservation administration and politics gathered at the Tamaki Yacht Club on Tuesday morning, the sun coming up in a golden blaze over Motuihe, the sea a riffled blue, a shag drying its wings the rocks outside the club’s iconic windows. The magnificent square rig silhouette of Spirit of New Zealand mooched past.

    All it needed was a Brydes whale and her calf to come calling, someone said cheerfully over the coffee and muffins. 

    The vast urban sprawl of a growing city of 1.5 million might not have existed.

    Minister of Oceans and Fisheries David Parker was enumerating the shocking state of the Hauraki Gulf’s underwater ecology and the long journey that had got its ecosystems to their current point of desolation. 

    Speaking at the launch of proposed government action on the five-years-in-the-making Sea Change Plan and answering discreet questions from the floor – too little? too unambitious? too late for such small goals? how had it got so bad? – he identified a fundamental disconnect between governance and implementation in the commons of the gulf and promised that more government action is coming soon.

    Unfortunately, it’s a point that the document itself barely touches on and it may be significant that it was put out by the Department of Conservation, Fisheries New Zealand and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

    In the context of a catastrophic destruction of the entire mauri of the gulf, the rest of us who were locked out of the consultation can hardly be inspired or reassured by such equivocal nonsense as this from page 78: “There is a key opportunity to learn through prototyping and trialing. It is critical that the appropriate learning and evaluation frameworks are embedded into this process.”

    Outside of the launch itself, reactions to the report have been blunt. Stop eating the fish or there won’t be any fish to eat, James Frankham, owner and editor of New Zealand Geographic, told TVNZ’s John Campbell. Under the water, the Gulf ’s former underwater kelp landscape is like a rainforest turned to desert. Regeneration of habitat and marine life will require 20 times the amount of unequivocal, no-take marine reserves to restore its health and habitats, he said. Very soon there will be “no fish to fight over”.

    In fact the document does not envisage any no-take habitat protection and its small raft of   “High Protection Areas”” are splintered off  in far-flung corners. 

    Waiheke politician Sandra Lee-Vercoe, who was our Minister of Conservation back in 2000 and authored the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park 2000 Act, said the gulf is in a state of catastrophic ecological collapse; the report’s recommendations for five percent of the Gulf to be in marine protected areas is a “miniscule gesture”. 

    Bottom trawlers are still working and the city’s “overly permissive council” is still allowing dumping in the Gulf and giving planning consents for marinas and floating car parks over penguin habitats in circumstances leading to heavy police presences and 25 arrests, she said tartly.

    Despite this government holding more power than ever before and the Gulf being a national treasure, the document is hardly a brave way forward. 

    The previous government’s Sea Change consultation had been watched with distrust by Waiheke from the start. The Hauraki Gulf Forum’s three-yearly reports and the growing underwater desertification emphasised the hubris. Fish farm concessions in the Firth of Thames and round Waiheke were expected by government to double New Zealand’s billion-dollar fishing industry. 

    For the sake of progress, I hope the outrage keeps coming. For perhaps a couple of weeks we can seize an opportunity for all the tangled constituencies contesting for the Gulf’s resources to hear each other (and themselves) and formulate compromises that they can contribute to the task of rewilding the underwater desert while abundant nature still has something to regenerate. 

    Toheroa never did recover on Ninety Mile Beach.

    What we require is some concrete actions. Lowered catch limits and seasons and rāhui at spawning times rather than licences and more bureaucracy. An end to bottom trawling in the gulf where starving Brydes whales are trying to turn themselves vegetarian in order to survive and breed. Shutting up a massive part of the Gulf in no-take reserves so migratory species like crayfish are safe to build up populations. Putting scallops off the menu for a couple of years. 

    If things work, these might only need to be for a few years. If they don’t, we change and we have useful data to move in slightly different directions. 

    Democracy requires the messiness that officials these days dislike so much, particularly when it comes to the commons and the need for wholesome regulatory oversight.  

    And in the meantime, our 12-metre, 25-tonne Brydes whales will try to hang on out on the Firth tideline. • Liz Waters

    For Sophie Boladeras’ full story on Revitalising the Gulf, turn to pages 5-6. 

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