In 2021, the Government adopted a vision for Aotearoa’s marine environment and explained the purpose of its new, integrated Oceans and Fisheries portfolio: “to ensure the long-term health and resilience of our ocean and coastal ecosystems, including the role of fisheries.” Late last year and on the world stage, New Zealand then supported the new global target to protect 30% of our ocean by 2030.
Yet if we are to judge ourselves by actions over words, then this week the Government showed it cares very little about its commitments to protect, preserve, and restore the health and resilience of our marine biodiversity. With less than 1% of New Zealand’s waters fully protected, meeting the ‘30 by 30’ target at home requires urgent and significant focus, pace, and resourcing. The new Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, Hon Rachel Brooking, has the experience and capability needed to turn the tide on the alarming decline in New Zealand’s marine biodiversity. But as a junior minister outside Cabinet, and in a Government where all the environmental portfolios - conservation, climate change, environment, and now oceans and fisheries - have been reshuffled to the bottom of the ranks, she has not been set up to succeed.
As an island nation, we are ocean people. Two-thirds of us live within 10 kilometres of the coast. The health of our marine environment is inextricably linked to our health and wellbeing. The ocean provides food, regulates our climate, and generates most of the oxygen we breathe. New Zealand’s waters are particularly unique, as they support 30% of our native biodiversity. Not only are we the seabird capital of the world, but half of our nearly 13,000 marine species are found nowhere else on Earth.
Despite being one of the world’s greatest hotspots for marine biodiversity, we have not treated our ocean well. The state of it is dire. It is more acidic - inhibiting the growth cycles of certain species. It is warming, causing irreversible damage - from coral bleaching to fundamentally altering the migration patterns of marine species. It is overfished - with some of our fish stocks depleted by more than 80% since 1970. It is polluted - around 14 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our ocean every year, killing millions of creatures. The volume of plastic pollution in our ocean is predicted to outnumber fish by 2050. Over the last 60 years, the number of ‘dead zones’, where oxygen has been completely depleted and ocean life cannot survive, has quadrupled.
As a result, 90% of our seabirds, 85% of our invertebrates, 80% of our shorebirds and 22% of our marine mammals are now threatened or at risk of extinction.
Quite simply, we are killing our ocean.
In the not too distant past, New Zealand was a global leader in marine protection when we developed the Marine Reserves Act 1971, the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, and later introduced the fisheries Quota Management System in 1986. Over the past 30 years, we have fallen behind. While there have been multiple attempts to update Marine Protected Areas (MPA) legislation, they have been frustratingly unsuccessful.
Whether driven by local communities or central government, efforts to establish new MPAs often get stuck due to the vested interests of particular parties, a lack of fit-for-purpose tools beyond ‘no-take’ marine reserves, insufficient funding for implementation, and the unwieldy statutory process for their creation.
Undertaking MPA reform is one of the few Labour party manifesto commitments left unactioned since 2017. Similarly, the former National government was unsuccessful in getting MPA reform over the line.
Aotearoa is letting down the side. Where we used to be global leaders, we are now failing to follow the best scientific advice for managing our ocean - which is to put 30% of it into a representative network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2030. When well-designed and managed, MPA networks conserve marine biodiversity, help rebuild fishery stocks, and build resilience to the impacts of climate change. They may even be able to alleviate these impacts by the storage of ‘blue carbon,’ particularly in coastal habitats such as salt marshes.
Beyond the ‘30 by 30’ target reflected in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, we have recently committed our support to the new UN High Seas Treaty. The historic agreement enables the protection of the High Seas (international waters where all countries have the right to ship, fish, and perform research) and creates a pathway to achieve 30% protection through the creation of new MPAs by 2030. It begs the question: if we can be good global stewards, when will we step up to properly manage our marine environment at home?
Dr Kayla Kingdon-Bebb, CEO WWF-New Zealand