Rugby identities weigh in on marine issue

Rugby heavyweights have added their names to a push to reconsider marine reserves off the Otago coast.

However, time may be up for any changes to the contentious protected areas.

Before last year’s election, the then Labour government’s conservation minister Willow-Jean Prime and oceans and fisheries minister Rachel Brooking announced six marine reserves from the Waitaki River to Watsons Beach, near Milton.

At the time, the fishing industry was furious and said the process involved "a box-ticking exercise under the guise of consultation".

Yesterday, Highlanders head of rugby Jamie Joseph and former All Black prop Kees Meeuws called for more consultation on the matter.

Mr Joseph said recreational fishers, including himself, were kept in the dark about what was planned.

One of the six reserves, the 29sq km Ōrau Marine Reserve, taking in St Clair’s White Island north to Sandfly Bay, had few access points and the region’s at times inclement weather already protected the fishery.

"I’m not sure why there is a need for a marine reserve and the frustrating part is we didn’t actually know it was going on," Mr Joseph said.

Mr Meeuws said the rules would push families fishing for their dinner far from safety — beyond the marine reserve’s boundary — should the weather turn.

"I just think there needs to be a lot more consultation before they make a firm ruling on what they are going to do," he said.

"This weather is so harsh that it can change just like that. I’ve been out in a big 6m Haines Hunter and it’s been flat and within half an hour you’re rolling in 4m swells, which can be quite dangerous."

Southern Inshore Fisheries director and Otago Rock Lobster Industry Association executive officer Chanel Gardner said it was important to note "everyone was up for reserves", but along the way the process "got way off track".

"Unfortunately, there have been key mapping errors on fishing grounds that were fundamental to Ngāi Tahu approving the entire network.

"What was a labelling mistake has had major repercussions on how all the advice was put together for the Ministers of Conservation, Transport and Oceans and Fisheries," Ms Gardner said.

"Ngāi Tahu may not have been comfortable authorising such an immense project that impacts their Treaty settlement fishing rights had the parties known that the maps were wrong.

"It isn't necessarily anyone's fault but it was a mistake of fact that was bedded in."

Advocating for the government to reconsider marine reserves off Otago’s coast approved last year...
Advocating for the government to reconsider marine reserves off Otago’s coast approved last year are (from left) Highlanders Jona Nareki, Ayden Johnstone, coach Clarke Dermody and head of rugby Jamie Joseph, and former All Black Kees Meeuws. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
If one map was wrong, public confidence and social licence in the rest would also be problematic, she said.

Upoko o Ōtākou Rūnaka Edward Ellison said it was not appropriate for the rock lobster association to assume it could speak on behalf of Kāi Tahu Papatipu Rūnaka.

The rūnaka was heavily involved in the development of the South East Marine Protection marine reserves network along with representatives of the community, environmental and marine specialists, the tourism sector, and commercial and recreational fishers, Mr Ellison said.

"As we shared at the time of last year’s announcement, Kāi Tahu Papatipu Rūnaka are comfortable with the full package agreed to by Crown ministers which recognises the cultural significance of our moana," he said.

Ms Brooking said yesterday she was aware of lobbying from the rock lobster association.

"Any overturning would be very disappointing after such an extensive and through process in creating the network," she said.

Department of Conservation regulatory strategy and design senior manager Anna Cameron said former conservation minister Ms Prime made her decisions on the six marine reserves in August last year under the Marine Reserves Act.

The next steps, before new rules took effect, were administrative and expected to be completed by the middle of this year.

Under the Marine Reserves Act, there were no further substantive ministerial decisions to be made in relation to them.

There was accordingly "no general ability under this Act for relevant ministers to reconsider the statutory decisions made by previous ministers".

She said "thousands of New Zealanders" had provided their views on the marine reserve proposals through consultation "and ministers took these views into consideration in their decision-making process, as required by law".

The department was only made aware of the rock lobster association claims about mapping errors yesterday.

"Until we have had time to consider this matter further, we are not in a position to comment" she said.

Minister of Conservation Tama Potaka said he was not considering any changes.

He would ask his officials for advice on the claim there had been a mapping error.

A statement from the Highlanders said the comments about the proposed Marine Reserves was not a reflection of the club's position but the personal opinions of five individuals linked together by rugby.