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Sea Change - Op-Ed Opinion

December 28 2001 – Wellington


Sea Change

The untimely death of Sir Peter Blake has focused renewed attention on the marine environment – but Eric Pyle asks are we doing enough to ensure our activities are sustainable long-term.

According to some sci-fi dream the year 2001 was supposed to be a time when robots would do all the work and everyone would whiz around on spaceships.

Instead the year will be remembered for the nightmarish terrorist attacks on landmark buildings in New York and Washington DC, and the senseless death of yachtsman and environmentalist Sir Peter Blake while on the Amazonian leg of his eco-mission.

Despite gaining wealth and fame from international yacht racing, Sir Peter’s new passion was the preservation of the earth’s fragile ecosystems. In one of his last emails he wrote of his plans to help with a campaign to create more marine reserves when he returned to New Zealand in February 2002.

It was not to be. If Sir Peter had visited he would have noticed a few wind shifts and changes. There are promising signs that New Zealanders are working smarter and in a more sustainable way.

Business leaders and academics are talking about ‘catching the knowledge wave’, and innovative organisations are not just reporting financial results but also social and environmental measures in the ‘triple bottom line’. Those exporting wool, milk and kiwifruit, or importing tourists, are realising the advantage of having New Zealand perceived as ‘clean and green’ – even if the realities sometimes don’t stack up.

As we are becoming more aware of our place in the world, we are also learning more about what makes New Zealand unique. Take for example our 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending from cool sub-Antarctic waters to subtropical seas around the Kermadec Islands - less than 1% has been surveyed for species. When the mapping of our continental shelf is completed we may be responsible for an area 23 times larger than our land mass that could contain more than ¾ of our indigenous biodiversity.

Already we are guardians of more than 8000 marine species, from marine mammals, fish and seabirds to sponges and seaweeds, and every second day a new species is identified.

New Zealand is also examining better ways of managing marine resources with the development of a comprehensive Oceans Policy. It’s a chance to replace 18 pieces of fragmented and incoherent legislation with a co-ordinated framework for the long-term sustainability of our resources.

Such a review is long overdue, because our marine management is in crisis. You only have visit a port to see unwelcome marine invaders or walk along your favourite stretch of coastline to see debris and pollution.

The greatest threat to our marine environment happens some distance offshore with over-fishing, environmental degradation from trawling and dredging, and ‘by-catch’ including dolphins, penguins sea lions and mysterious creatures – many unnamed and unknown to science - that live on the bottom of our oceans.

Incredibly the exact status of nearly half the 150 commercially fished stocks or areas is not known, but we do know that some populations of orange roughy, snapper and rock lobster have been reduced to 3% of their un-fished size by overfishing. Over the last two decades some 65,000 albatross and petrels have been killed on tuna longlines within our EEZ, and each year over 1000 fur seals drown in nets.

More visible is discarded waste which litters our 15,000km coastline, and the coastal developments and marine farms which are colonising our coastlines. Also evident are the efforts of the fishing industry to muscle in on fisheries plans and quota management, regardless of the wishes of ordinary New Zealanders.

Many New Zealanders (surveys suggest 80%) support the creation of new marine reserves, marine parks and marine mammal sanctuaries – currently only 0.1% of our EEZ is in reserves. The Labour-Alliance coalition government has yet to demonstrate its commitment to marine reserves. It hasn’t gazetted any new marine reserve during its term in office, and some of the eight applications have been awaiting decisions since the early 1990s.

Monitoring at the 16 existing marine reserves reveals the protected areas are oases for an abundance of diverse marine life, and as well as proving an educational and recreational resource, they act as a breeding ground for the replenishment of surrounding areas. Recent research has indicated that more New Zealanders visit marine reserves than national parks – more than 250,000 people visit the marine reserve at Leigh each year.

Marine biologists like Dr Bill Ballantine, who has been involved with creating the reserve at Leigh for over 35 years, believe New Zealand has now done the testing and trials to establish a network of marine reserves like we have on land with national parks. Internationally, scientists are calling for at 20% of the marine environment to be set aside in a network of marine reserves.

Marine reserves mean more sealife, particularly more fish as a result of “spillover” from the reserve and because the reserve creates a breeding stock of bigger fish (which produce more young than smaller fish). Yet some sectors of the community would have us believe that marine reserves mean “locking up” the coast. The reality is that everyone wins with marine reserves.

The year 2001 has seen greater protection for our endangered Hector’s dolphin, and the introduction of stiffer fines for recreational fishers who exceed limits or take under-size catches, but we still have a long way to go as stewards of our marine resources if we want sustainability.

With most New Zealanders living within an hour’s drive of the coast, many of us will head to beaches and baches this summer, and feast on fish n’ chips. Perhaps while watching the sun going down after a long hot summer day, we can contemplate the legacy of Sir Peter Blake - not just from his proud achievements on the water, but his concern for the waters which lap on all our coastlines.

We need more people like Sir Peter to give a future New Zealand we can all be proud of. We need leaders who can help us become better stewards of our environment.


Eric Pyle is Conservation Manager of New Zealand’s largest conservation organisation, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society.

Contact: Eric Pyle, Conservation Manager Tel. 04 233 2993 (home),
025 227 8420

988 words

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