Is New Zealand ready to be embarrassed on the world stage?
Because that’s what’s going to happen when we fail to meet our international obligations to protect 30% of our marine environment.
New Zealanders take pride in nature – it’s part of our identity, and our ocean territory is among the largest in the world. Despite this, less than half a per cent of our marine environment is fully protected.
This is an alarming truth for a country that used to be a global leader in ocean conservation, and where 90% of seabirds, 85% of shorebirds, and 22% of marine mammals are threatened or at risk of extinction.
The Kermadec Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary fiasco illustrates New Zealand’s problem. The sanctuary stemmed from a great vision to protect a biodiversity hotspot at the northernmost edge of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Unfortunately, in 2015, a rushed announcement and lack of consultation by the then-government left mana whenua and wider iwi feeling blindsided. It also raised legitimate issues about Māori commercial fishing quota guaranteed in the 1992 Fisheries Settlement. (Although very little – if any – commercial fishing occurs in the remote Kermadec region.)
A five-and-a-half-year negotiation between the Government and Te Ohu Kaimoana – the entity that represents Māori commercial fishing interests – aimed to resolve these issues and seemed to be on track. But the good-faith process has ended with Te Ohu Kaimoana’s outright rejection of a significantly revised sanctuary proposal, with no good outcomes for anyone.
The sanctuary would be transformational for climate and biodiversity. It would cover a deep ocean trench and a chain of submarine volcanoes – geology that supports a rich diversity of marine life.
Around one-third of New Zealand’s fish species live in the Kermadec/Rangitāhua area, alongside more than 250 species of coral and bryozoan. The ocean here supports more than six million seabirds, as well as sea turtles, whales and dolphins.
The sanctuary would also bolster our ocean creds on the global stage. The Kermadec Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary would protect around 15% of our EEZ – taking us a fair whack closer to the 30% goal we signed up to last year as part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and fulfilling goals in Te Mana o te Taiao – Aotearoa New Zealand’s national biodiversity strategy.
Ngāti Kurī, Te Aupouri and Ngai Takoto have customary interests and association with Rangitāhua. Ngāti Kurī particularly have been long-standing advocates for the sanctuary.
It’s deeply disappointing that after so many years of working together, nature, people, and the planet are no better off.
We owe it to future generations to take urgent steps to protect and restore our declining marine biodiversity. We urge Te Ohu Kaimoana to continue talks with the Government in good faith, and to recognise that – as demonstrated by recent research – large-scale, offshore and fully protected marine areas protect biodiversity without negatively impacting fishing.
If we’re going to make progress on marine protection, we urgently need new tools that are fit-for-purpose, enabling the large-scale protection our oceans so desperately need, while also upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Marine protection isn’t a nice-to-have. In a world shaped by climate change, biodiversity loss and global expectations for action, it’s essential.