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Conserving our Oceans

Hon Dr Nick Smith

Minister of Conservation

Speech at the 16th Bluegreens Forum: Conserving our Oceans

It is great to gather again at this, our 16th Bluegreens Forum, to positively influence how New Zealand manages its natural resources.

It is a special privilege to have Hon Greg Hunt, the Australian Environment Minister, join us. We share a common goal of pursuing policies for our respective nations that marry together sound stewardship of our natural heritage with a strong economy that provides good jobs and incomes for our citizens.

It is entirely appropriate that my address this year here in Kaikōura is focused on oceans. Few New Zealanders appreciate the treasure trove of marine life that exists here because of the deep canyon so close to the coast fed by nutrients off the steep and seismically active Kaikōura ranges. Kaikōura has the most biologically rich ocean habitat anywhere in the world at depths of over 500 metres – in fact it is 100 times richer than any other known site at these depths. This ocean, while hosting a $134 million a year tourism industry, has no formal recognition or protection.

This weekend that will change, with announcements tomorrow by the Prime Minister.

I want to acknowledge some special people associated with this year’s Bluegreens Forum.

Firstly, local MP Colin King. Nine years ago when Colin was a newly selected candidate and I was the Opposition spokesperson, we donned wetsuits and flippers and took to the Peninsula to make the case for increased marine protection. I thank Colin for his work on that issue as well as his efforts to support the organisation of our Forum here this weekend. I also wish to acknowledge Geoff Thompson, our national convenor, and our national executive team whose volunteer effort keeps Bluegreens going. I also must thank Nicky Wagner, the Parliamentary Private Secretary for Conservation and chair of our caucus committee, and the wider Bluegreen caucus team who have given up this weekend to join in our discussions.

You will recall five years ago, John Key and our team campaigned on a platform of being ambitious for New Zealand. This morning I want to address our Bluegreen ambition for New Zealand to lead in oceans management. I want to cover why it is important and topical, and what we have achieved in Government to date. I also want to make some specific announcements and set out some of the next steps on our agenda.

Few New Zealanders appreciate the scale of our ocean estate.

It is six million square kilometres, or 20 times our land area.

It’s the fifth largest in the world, after the United States, Australia, Russia and France.

Let me put it another way. We make up about half of 0.1 per cent of the global population, but we have responsibility for five per cent or 100 times that of the world’s oceans under national jurisdictions.

This is made up of 18,000 kilometres of coastline in which we have full territorial responsibility out to 23 kilometres.

We then have 4.3 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), areas where we have full control and say over fisheries, minerals and petroleum, but where there is a free right of navigation.

There is a third legal category of ocean beyond the EEZ known as the extended continental shelf, where we have sovereign rights over the seabed. This area has expanded by the equivalent of five times our land area or 1.7 million square kilometres in our first year in Government as the UN-approved our oceanographic work defining the limits of the huge subterranean continent on which New Zealand resides.

We also, of course, have an interest in the well-being of the fourth category of oceans – the high seas – beyond our national interests, and of which I will be making some joint announcements with Australia today.

The demand globally for resources – energy, minerals, protein – particularly from rapidly growing economies in our part of the world, is increasing the pressure on the oceans’ resources in all four of these legal jurisdictions.

And the other major driver is technology. We now have the capacity to be able to access so much more economically the resources not just in the territorial sea but out in the deep ocean environment.

The policy debates arising from these increasing pressures are not indifferent to the terrestrial debates we had to deal with last century.

We churned up years of Parliamentary time in debates over the appropriate balance between how much of our land should be cleared or drained for agriculture, forestry and urban settlement as compared to what should be set aside in its natural state for conservation.

That is why I say the ocean is the new frontier for conservation, and that we as policymakers have an important job in getting the right balance between economic development and protection.

We have a robust framework from the Bluegreens Principles we developed during our time in Opposition.

We firmly committed ourselves to the principle of sustainability – that we must limit our use of resources to a rate that will serve us not just in the short term, but for future generations.

As politically painful as cutting fish catch limits may seem, we as a Government must be resolute in our commitment to fishing sustainability.

Secondly, we committed to policies that match economic and environmental success.

We reject the extremes of the debate that would lock up all of the sea from economic development as much as we reject those who oppose any being given permanent protection.

We want our oceans contributing to a stronger economy, more jobs and better paying jobs while also ensuring we are responsible guardians.

Our third guiding principle was a commitment to science and evidence-based decision making.

Whether it is the difficult issues over Maui’s dolphin, drilling for oil and gas or marine farming, we want our policy based on a rational assessment of effects and risks.

We are also committed to a more collaborative approach to resolving resource conflicts.

We don’t think the environment wins from highly polarised, divisive arguments and we have supported and encouraged stakeholders engaging together on solutions that work for communities, the environment and the economy.

Our fifth and final commitment was our recognition of New Zealanders’ birth right to access our great outdoors and special places – in this context, being able to catch a fish for the family and access the beach.

So how have we applied this Bluegreen framework to our work in the oceans area over our time in Government?

Our first priority was in addressing the gap in our environmental regulation in our huge EEZ.

When we came to Government, there was no requirement for any independent assessment or consent for petroleum exploration, minerals exploration, marine farming or any other activity in our EEZ.

For the record, there were 36 exploratory wells drilled in the EEZ – several in deep water prior to our election as Government – without any environmental assessment or regulation, nor was any policy work being advanced to fill this huge hole in our country’s environment systems.

We set to work on the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill as soon as we came to Government. We were determined to ensure that New Zealand’s law was world’s best practice.

A key conclusion of the Gulf of Mexico disaster was that their systems failed because the agency responsible for the regulation of the oil and gas industry was also dependent on it for income and was responsible for the industry’s promotion.

That is one reason our Government established the independent Environmental Protection Authority. Its job is to robustly check applications within the EEZ to ensure that all risks are being appropriately managed.

The second significant environmental achievement in this space is the RMA National Coast Policy Statement.
It sets a clearer framework on how our 18,000 kilometres of coast should be managed. It significantly toughens up what pollutants can be put into the ocean from sewage, drainage and other discharges. It provides guidance on appropriate coastal development – not preventing it, but ensuring we retain those iconic beaches and coastal landscapes that make New Zealand so special. For those surfies present, you should also be proud that it is a National Government which has put in place explicit protection and recognition for 17 nationally significant surf breaks around the country.

Our Government has also been very busy, in a very Bluegreen way, of improving the protection of New Zealand’s distinctive marine life. There is huge interest in conserving New Zealand’s terrestrial species like kiwi, kakapo, tuatara and the like, but few people realise that 80 per cent of our endemic species – those that only exist here and nowhere else in the world – exist in our marine environment.

The most challenging of these is our work on a new Threat Management Plan for the Maui’s dolphin. These dolphins are the smallest and rarest in the world with numbers estimated at just 55 adults.

Our decision has seen the ban on set netting expanded by over 2000 square kilometres around the Taranaki coast. This is at the edges of the Maui’s dolphins’ habitat which is predominantly between the Kaipara and Raglan Harbours, but with a few observations in this area and the Maui’s dolphins being so vulnerable, we have taken a precautionary approach. We have also required 100 per cent independent observer coverage which has found no sign of Maui’s dolphin beyond our protected zone.

This Bluegreen approach of doing our utmost to protect these dolphins but basing our decisions on evidence is serving New Zealand well. We have had similar issues to grasp with our New Zealand sea lion in our southern oceans.

I announced earlier this month that we would be developing a Threat Management Plan for this species because of concern over declining numbers, particularly on the Auckland Islands– an announcement that was broadly welcomed.

Again, we need to base our decisions on sound science. Fishers have put huge effort into reducing the by-catch of sea lions in their nets over the past decade, and scientists advise me that the losses from other accidental deaths and disease now well exceed these. Our goal has to be sustainably managing the rich squid, scampi and whiting fishes in these oceans while doing more to ensure these unique marine mammals survive.

This year, we have taken another step to improve our stewardship of the oceans by banning shark finning. Sharks may not be the friendliest creatures in the ocean, but just as we frown today on the destruction of impressive land predators like lions and tigers, so too we need to ensure shark populations are maintained as part of the marine environment.

As well as protecting individual marine species, New Zealand needs to develop a network of marine reserves that protect whole ecosystems.

National has a proud history of leadership in this regard.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to legislate for complete no-take marine protected areas in 1971 during the Holyoake Government.

Marine reserves are important in three respects. Firstly, they provide critical scientific baseline data as to the potential marine life in an area without harvest or interference. Secondly, they provide a place where people can enjoy marine life in its natural state, just as they enjoy bird life within a forest park. And thirdly, these reserves provide important breeding grounds that benefit surrounding areas. The living proof that marine reserves work is the line-up of fishing boats around their periphery in search of a good catch.

My objective is to complete a record number of marine reserves this year.

On 2 March, I was privileged to designate three new marine reserves in the Subantarctic Ocean around the Campbell, Bounty and Antipodes Islands. These reserves, our 35th, 36th and 37th, cover an area of 435,000 square kilometres – an area 13 times the area of all of the marine reserves currently around New Zealand’s three main islands.

These islands are among the most pristine in the world and are home to an amazing array of marine life from giant underwater kelps, unique white-footed paua, multiple species of albatross and penguins, sea lions, fur seals, sea elephants and whales.

Today I’m pleased to announce further progress on the five marine reserves on the West Coast. I gave my approval to these at Kahurangi, Punakaiki, Okarito, Tauparikaka and Hautai last year, but one further stage was required in the process under the current cumbersome process of the Marine Reserves Act. That is the concurrence of the Minister for Primary Industries. Today I am pleased to announce that concurrence has been given. This will enable these reserves to be put in place this year.

The other marine reserve we will complete this year is the reserve in Akaroa Harbour that I announced last year, and for which the Minister for Primary Industries gave concurrence in December. It is intended that this reserve will come into effect on World Oceans Day on 8 June.

I’m sure you are aware of the contentious and divisive debate spanning over 20 years over Akaroa Reserve. The decision to establish this reserve was the right one, but the contorted process holds real lessons for us in advancing marine protection in future.

The other new marine reserves are all the product of the sort of inclusive and collaborative processes that we Bluegreens have long advocated. They involved local recreational, customary and commercial fishers, with local conservation groups and the local community working together on how best to protect and manage their marine environment.

It is true that these processes take time, are frustrating and require compromise, but they produce a far more sustainable outcome.

That is why, in looking to take the next steps forward in expanding our network of marine reserves, I am again pushing this collaborative approach.

Last September, I announced with the Auckland Council a collaborative process for the Hauraki Gulf on marine spatial planning, which I am hopeful will also provide recommendations for additional protection in our most populated harbour – the Hauraki Gulf.

The other area in which I want to advance progress is the Otago coastline. Despite being the home of the Yellow Eyed Penguin, the spectacular Otago Peninsula and its colony of albatross, the Catlins and the only mainland breeding site of our New Zealand sea lion, there is no marine protection south of Akaroa on the east coast of the mainland.

This brings me to my second announcement on progressing marine protection this weekend. Today I am announcing the 14 members of the Otago Marine Protection Planning Forum to be chaired by senior environmental law partner Maree Baker-Galloway, The Forum includes three Ngāi Tahu representatives, recreational and commercial fishers, conservation groups, Otago University academics, mineral interests and community representatives. My ambition for this group, just as for the Subantarctics, the West Coast, and Fiordland, is that they can, in time, come to a consensus around marine protection options for this part of New Zealand’s coast.

It’s important that we maintain our progress on marine reserves, but we also have another important challenge ahead of us – rewriting New Zealand’s 1971 Marine Reserves Act.

It was insightful legislation in its time but 43 years on, it is well short of world’s best practice.

It is telling that we are regularly, like for the Subantarctic and Fiordland Marine Reserves, having to resort to special legislation because of the inflexibility and inadequacies of the current law.

There are three key changes we need to make to the 1971 Act.

First, we need to expand the purpose and scope of marine reserves beyond the narrow scientific purpose of study. Just as we create terrestrial reserves for the purposes of protecting biodiversity and conservation goals, so too we need to recognise this as a purpose of marine protection tools.

Second, we need to allow for a broader range of marine protection tools.

The current Marine Reserves Act is focused on no-take, pure protection areas.

These have their place but best practice internationally is a graduated approach to marine protection – from no-take reserves, to marine parks where recreational fishing is allowed, to sanctuaries for specific species to areas of seabed reserves.

Third, we need to change the way marine protected areas are processed. The existing law is divisive and cumbersome. It is wrong to have the advocate for a new marine reserve also be the receiver and manager of the process considering objections. It does not make sense to have other Ministers with an interest in the marine environment like Primary Industries, Transport, and Energy and Resources excluded from the process until the end. We also need to give statutory recognition to the collaborative sort of process that we Bluegreens have long championed and which has proved so successful in getting agreement over marine protection in areas like the Subantarctics, the West Coast, Fiordland, and now Kaikōura.

The job of rewriting our Marine Reserves Act is a major undertaking. I issued a discussion paper in 1999 on options for reform. It was listed as a top conservation priority for the then-Government in 2000 but to no avail. A Bill languished before the select committee for over a decade. It would have been possible to have put a new bill before Parliament on just marine reserves, but the advice of officials, supported by Cabinet, was that this would be a lost opportunity to take a broader view and deliver a Marine Protected Areas Bill with a wider range of tools.

I am very encouraged by the progress officials are making on this more ambitious undertaking and am hopeful for announcing a reform package later this year.

The final area I want to cover is New Zealand’s work internationally on improving the management and protection of our oceans.

One of the most contentious issues outside our exclusive economic zone in our southern oceans is the on-going, so-called scientific whaling by Japan. I acknowledge Australia’s role in taking Japan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

New Zealand was the only country to join Australia in these proceedings. It speaks volumes about the importance our Government places on the issue that Attorney-General Chris Finlayson QC went to the Hague to put our case. The ICJ will deliver its decision in a fortnight on 31 March.

New Zealand and Australia have also been working together on marine protection in Antarctic waters.

A very important priority for our Government is building consensus on a substantial marine protection area in the Ross Sea. The proposed no-take area would make it the largest anywhere in the world. We are gradually making progress through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

I do get a little tired of some of the negative criticisms of our Government’s efforts to achieve this protection of what’s become known as the world’s last ocean. Success requires that we build consensus amongst all 26 member countries. This will inevitably involve some compromise. We must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. International diplomacy is the art of the possible.

The final issue I want to address is New Zealand working with Australia to improve management of the high seas that make up 45 per cent of the globe.

The reality of the world’s high seas is that they suffer from the tragedy of the commons. Whereas countries have strong national interest reasons for ensuring the proper management of their territorial sea and exclusive economic zones, countries have little interest in properly conserving and managing the world’s oceans outside this jurisdiction. Some of the world’s most important fisheries and marine ecosystems are found in these areas.

New Zealand – like our near neighbour Australia – holds the view that a new treaty, complementary to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is needed to properly conserve and manage this massive ocean area.

The United Nations has set down a timetable on options for reform to be reported back to the General Assembly by September 2015.

Next month the working committee, known by the complex acronym of MBBNJ – or Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction – meets in New York, and I am pleased to announce today the strong commitment by myself and Greg Hunt for our countries to work closely together on progressing a new international agreement in this area.

I want to conclude by restating my ambition that New Zealand should aim to be a world leader in the responsible use, management and conservation of our ocean environment.

We have a proud record. We have more no-take reserves than any other country. The Science Journal and the Marine Policy Journal rates our fisheries as the best managed in the world. This Bluegreens programme outlined today maintains this leadership and will ensure our oceans are in good shape for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

Ends

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