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What we do not know about our marine environment is as compelling a reason for establishing marine protection areas as what we do know, marine scientist Dr Chris Hepburn says. But first, real buy-in from the public is needed, environment lawyer Maree Baker-Galloway tells Bruce Munro.
Dr Chris Hepburn (41) is about to interrupt himself, again. Tall, affable, with a tendency to use words like eutrophic and bryozoan as though they were staples of everyone's verbal diet, he is out at St Clair Beach this morning talking about what is in our coastal waters that is worth protecting.
But the senior lecturer in marine science at the University of Otago keeps spotting his students, despite being 10km from campus. It is as though they all have an irresistible urge to be near the sea whenever they can, even if it is just working in a seaside cafe to pay their way through university.
As he sees each of them, Dr Hepburn pauses to chat or wave. Then he has to find the thread of conversation again.
''So, where were we? Oh, yes. There are a lot of things out there that are important nationally and internationally,'' Dr Hepburn says, turning to face the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
''Some of them are fairly unique from what we know. But a lot of these southern hemisphere, cold water, temperate eco-systems are not that well known, because a lot of the funding isn't connected to asking questions like `What is out there that's worth protecting?'.''
The question is on the agenda now, however, because the Government is gearing up for public consultation on a plan to create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along the South Island's southeast coast.
Dr Hepburn is a member of the South-East Marine Protection Forum (SEMPF) overseeing that work.
He talks about the different special habitats in our coastal waters.
There are those bryozoa, tiny aquatic invertebrate animals that are our cold-water version of coral reef builders. There is Otago Peninsula, jutting out towards the intersection of different water currents.
''The real hot spot in the region, I think, is probably Otago Peninsula,'' he says.
Its geography creates ''interesting hydrodynamics'' and the water motion drives diversity, creating a number of truly distinct eco-systems within a comparatively confined area.
There are also the colonies of bulky bull kelp close to shore, holding fast to rock as it is blasted by southerly storms.
''Around the world, you don't see really big kelps in wave-exposed shores in the intertidal zone very often.''
And there are the heads of enormous, steep-edged underwater canyons, further offshore than Kaikoura's famous whale playgrounds, but still within the 12 nautical mile limit of the proposed South-East MPAs.
''Two days ago, Will Raymond, who is beginning a research project on the underwater canyons in this area, saw three sperm whales there,'' Dr Hepburn says with obvious enthusiasm.
''That's a really big animal. How many times have they been seen here? I hate to say it, but it just goes to show how ignorant we are.
''We can't see under water. We can't breathe under water, and we only have a certain amount of money to do things. But we are starting to focus more on the Otago region, and hopefully we'll get more information.''
And do not forget the giant kelp forests, Dr Hepburn, who is a kelp specialist, says.
Giant kelp, also known as Macrocystis pyrifera, or bladder kelp, grows upwards from the seafloor, its canopy swaying in the watery breeze near the surface.
Individual ''trees'' can grow to more than 30m tall and at a rate of up to half a metre a day.
''It spans the whole water column ... so it changes the hydrodynamics and the lighting. It's an ecosystem engineer.''
In New Zealand, the remaining giant kelp forests are found about 5km offshore, between Warrington and Moeraki.
''There are small patches elsewhere in New Zealand, around Kaikoura and Stewart Island, but nothing really like what you get here. It's like the coveted Californian kelp forests.''
Maree Baker-Galloway is chairwoman of the forum that has been set up to manage public consultation on the local MPA plan.
A Queenstown-based environmental lawyer with the law firm Anderson Lloyd, Ms Baker-Galloway (44) says the aim of the MPAs is to protect a representative example of every habitat type from north of the Pareora River, near Timaru, to Waipapa Point, in southeast Southland.
The network of MPAs will not necessarily be physically linked to each other, Ms Baker-Galloway says.
''But between some of them, there will be meaningful ecological connections.''
And not all the MPAs will be of the same type. The intention is to have at least one marine reserve; an area in which nothing can be disturbed.
''So, nothing can be removed from the marine environment, there can be no discharge of contaminants into it, and no disturbance of the sea floor. So, it's completely locked up.''
Other MPAs would have restrictions specific to what was rare, distinctive or valued about the specific area, ''a fit-for-purpose set of restrictions rather than the blanket prohibition of a marine reserve,'' Ms Baker-Galloway explains.
MPAs are needed throughout the country because, although there are a bunch of laws and agreements covering the marine environment, they do not ensure New Zealand meets obligations under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
The lack of MPAs along the southeast coast was a ''significant gap''.
But two previous attempts to establish a marine reserve at The Nuggets, southeast of Balclutha, had been polarising and had not proceeded.
It is hoped that by starting with a clean slate and working hard to both inform the public and get public input, the SEMPF will have better success, Ms Baker-Galloway says.
''It's not just about what the scientists know, even though the science is critical to getting a good outcome. There will still be people who have observed stuff over 40 or 50 years which a scientist hasn't observed, that is relevant to understanding patterns and changes.
''But also, regardless of whether a council or expert is right in saying something needs protecting, if people don't buy in to that it is doomed to failure.
''At the end of the process, the hope is that at least some of the community accepts the outcome, even if it isn't what they advocated for, and so support the end result.
"Especially in the marine environment where it is a big empty space out there, and if someone doesn't want to follow the rules they can probably get away with it. But if the community supports the rules, it is harder for those rule-breakers to get away with it.''
Protecting and restoring biodiversity is crucial, Dr Hepburn says.
It ensures the ecosystem continues to function when one link is weakened or knocked out.
It is also important for those who earn their living from the sea.
''Take kelp for example. If you lose a kelp forest eco-system you will lose your crayfish fishery, you'll have a reduction in fin-fish fishery, and paua are unlikely to do very well because 80% of what they feed on is Macrocystis.''
So much has already been lost, Dr Hepburn says, citing examples of many fish species, including blue cod and hapuku, which used to be plentiful in waters along the southeast coast.
A marine reserve would enable scientists and the public to see, for the first time in a long while, what the natural picture actually looks like.
''We do a lot of paua work, but we really struggle to find a natural population that we can compare against to know how it should look and how far away from that we are. MPAs, from a science perspective, are a huge springboard to research.
"If we don't have them we won't really be able to understand what we have lost. It won't be that clear to us, perceptions will change, we'll get used to it. Just like we've gotten used to not swimming in rivers.''
• Formal submissions on the South-East Marine Protection Forum's draft recommendations will begin in October. This will be followed by public meetings throughout the region.
• An interactive web-based map that allows the public to view areas under discussion, visualise known marine environment data and create their own suggestions for marine reserves and protected areas can be found online at southeastmarine.seasketch.org