Feelings run high over marine reserve proposal

Tensions were on display at the weekend as the possibility of a marine reserve being created off Nugget Point again reared its head.

Feeling ran high over the issue at the Southeast Coast Marine Protection Forum's public meeting in Owaka on Saturday. The forum is charged with creating at least one marine reserve off the southeast coast between Timaru and Waipapa Point. It is holding meetings to gather feedback before making any decisions as to where it might be located.

About 80 people gathered - more than double the number that attended any of the forum's previous meetings - at Saturday's meeting at the Catlins Area School.

Negativity saw two previous attempts - in 1992 and 2004 - to create a marine reserve at Nugget Point fail..

Environment lawyer and forum chairwoman Maree Baker-Galloway told those gathered Nugget Point was not being specifically targeted as the site of a marine reserve.

''It's a big stretch of coast that we are looking at. You're not the only community that is being singled out. We are having the exact same discussion with everyone else.''

At one point she had to tell those gathered to ''calm down'', remain on topic and avoid any personal comments. She tried to allay concerns that widely circulated petitions in other areas would outweigh the voices of small Catlins communities, saying they were only one of many factors the forum would take into account.

Current use of the area would also be considered.

Retired commercial fisherman Barry Bethune, of Kaka Point, said the proposal a decade ago was ''bloody nuts'' and he distrusted this consultation process.

This was ''exactly how they started with the quota system'', he said.

''We're going to turn the radio on one morning and be told where it [the marine reserve] is. That's what's going to happen.''

Jane Young, from Forest and Bird, hoped debate would not get ''nasty'' like it did when the idea was resurrected in 2004. She believed the area's ecosystem was out of balance. Sea temperatures were high and a rising barracouta population was threatening the already declining yellow-eyed penguin population.

Sea lion populations were not healthy.

''I say it's well on the way to being broke and we need to do something about fixing it.''

But Ian Sinclair, a farmer from Cannibal Bay, said he believed the threat to species such as the New Zealand sea lion in the Catlins was being overstated, and opposed the establishment of a reserve.

''Try a mataitai and see what happens, rather than it being a marine reserve ... it gives them a bit of scientific evidence. If the fish stocks improve, they can move it to somewhere else.''

Ms Baker-Galloway said the current process was ''quite different'' to what had been done before.

The forum would consult for six months and then deliberate.

A draft recommendation would hopefully be produced before the end of the year.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

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