Marine reserve proposals inadequate

Most of the Otago new proposed marine reserves are exercises in social compromise, not because they are the best choice, writes Kevin Hackwell.

When the New Zealand public took the opportunity to have their say on proposed new marine reserves in the Otago area, they overwhelmingly supported reserves at the Waitaki River mouth, Bobbys Head, over the larger Saunders Canyon, along Dunedin's coastline from St Clair to Tow Rock, around Green Island, at Akatore, and at Tahakopa Estuary and Long Point in the Catlins.

This isn't a skewed selection of opinions: people want marine reserves.

A 2011 WWF survey found that 96% of New Zealanders want more of our oceans protected. In 2016, another survey showed that more than three-quarters of people also want protection for our deep ocean, which is not currently covered by marine protection legislation.

To some extent, the best network of marine protection recommended by the South-East Marine Protection Forum last week meets that public desire. Dunedin, the wildlife capital of New Zealand, could have a marine reserve right on its doorstep.

That is remarkable and, as the forum noted, it could be a flagship marine reserve. It would be better if it was enlarged and included Tow Rock, the most productive area.

The proposed network also includes what would become our largest inshore mainland marine reserve. Bobbys Head - a 9600ha area from Pleasant River to Stony Creek - includes the only proposal for an estuarine marine reserve and would also protect rare examples of volcanic rocky reefs, sea caves and seaweed gardens.

But there are disappointments.

It is a real pity the forum did not choose enough easily accessible and sheltered places where kids could be taken snorkelling. The forum completely failed to recommend a marine reserve for the Catlins region. It is also disappointing that there are no proposals linking estuaries and inshore rocky reefs to the deep seas out to 12 nautical miles - something that many public and science submissions sought.

Science submitters on the initial proposals that were put out for public comment suggested the network is not likely to be effective as it is too small and not well connected. With nothing proposed for the Catlins, the final recommendations are smaller and even less well connected.

Most of the reserves chosen are exercises in social compromise, not because they are the best choice.

For example, the forum chose not to place a marine reserve over Saunders Canyon, despite this being the best ecological choice with the most complex habitats, and what the majority of the public submitters wanted.

But the biggest disappointment is that even the best of the two networks presented by the forum doesn't meet the terms of reference, which required the establishment of an ecologically representative and well connected system of marine protected areas.

Network 2 - the recommendation made largely by fishing representatives - is a travesty.

Network 1- the best network - is still inadequate. It doesn't meet New Zealand's already meagre policy requirements and certainly doesn't meet international best practices for sustainably protecting our seas.

The proposals don't meet the needs of Otago's Hector's dolphins, sea lions, and yellow-eyed penguins. The current policies and legislation don't cater for protection of these types of species, and the forum report expressed frustration at that.

It's clear that we need marine reserves now - our marine environment is under ever-increasing pressure and 90% of New Zealand seabirds are at risk of extinction. It is clear that the public want marine reserves. We need to implement the best recommendation from the forum, but we also need to do much, much more.

-Kevin Hackwell is a Forest & Bird conservation advocate.

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