Facts get in the way of Nick Smith’s ‘good news’ story
Last Saturday (March 9), Conservation Minister Nick Smith announced that he had approved the creation of five new marine reserves off the South Island’s West Coast. On the face of it, that may sound like the sort of thing that Forest & Bird might applaud. And in many ways, this was good news. But this was not a case of a minister suddenly deciding to do nature a good turn, and environmentalists subsequently doing back-flips in joy.
The main problem with these proposed reserves – Kahurangi, Punakaiki, Okarito, Tauparikaka and Hautai – is that the West Coast Marine Protection Forum, which was charged with setting their boundaries, made them far smaller, and in shallower water, than the science says they should be.
Sure, the numbers sound impressive. If their existence is enshrined in law (Nathan Guy, the Minister of Primary Industries, and Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee must cast their eyes over the proposals first), the reserves will cover 17,500 hectares of water, increasing the area protected by marine reserves nationally by fifty per cent. That may sound like a lot, but the West Coast stretches for 600 kilometres – just six per cent of the area between the coast and New Zealand’s territorial boundary would be covered by these reserves. And while a third of New Zealand’s land area is managed for conservation purposes, it’s open season in all but 0.3 per cent of the waters of our Exclusive Economic Zone. This will increase by a tiny tenth of a per cent, once some gazetted reserves around the Sub-Antarctic Islands pass into law.
But the size of the proposed West Coast reserves is an issue particularly because none of them are large enough to protect an entire ecosystem. As every animal in an ecosystem relies on every other animal in that ecosystem, to some extent at least, that makes the proposals seriously flawed. While the forum was required to propose marine reserves that protected a representative range of marine habitats along the West Coast, the furthest any of the reserves extends out from shore is just 5.7 kilometres of a possible 20km (to the territorial boundary). One of the reserves covers just 16 ha, and extends only 200 metres off the shore.
Overall, is seems that Forest & Bird’s early suspicion that the consultation forums were too heavily biased towards exploitative users, have sadly proven correct.
The science is clear; so far we’ve done an incredibly poor job of looking after our terrestrial and marine habitats, things have to dramatically improve, and this is not the dramatic improvement that’s needed. Forest & Bird is calling for at least thirty per cent of New Zealand’s territorial and economic waters to be protected. This is not a high number by international standards, and it’s what our marine habitats need if they are to provide for the fishing fleets of the future.