OPINION: New Zealand could be a world leader in marine protection, writes Chris Howe.
Earlier this month, a team of scientists returned from the Kermadec Islands to the north of New Zealand with discoveries of fish species previously unknown to science.
Our oceans are home to a unique diversity of wildlife, yet less than 1 per cent of New Zealand's vast marine environment is fully protected in marine reserves.
While the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders in setting up marine reserves is a strength of our current system, the lack of any kind of national strategic guidance, direction or oversight leaves us struggling to demonstrate how we are meeting even the lowest level of expectations globally for setting aside our most precious marine places.
And while we have a reputable system for managing fishing quotas, the science that underpins that system is so lacking in data that it is impossible to make science-based decisions to determine the safe catch limits for most of our commercial fisheries.
Some New Zealand fisheries are making steps towards sustainability, for example, by going through certification by the Marine Stewardship Council, recognised by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) as the best available eco-label for wild caught fish. But to safeguard life in our seas, sustainable fisheries need to sit alongside other management tools.
New Zealand's politicians and fishing industry leaders like to position themselves on the world stage as leaders in the management of the marine environment. But the truth is we are falling far behind.
Can we fix it? Certainly, but it will take time, long-term political commitment, involvement from stakeholders, including the fishing industry, and a willingness to revisit some of the Oceans Policy work done 10 years ago.
So should we sit back and wait until that work is done, before we do anything? No. Halfway between Cape Reinga and Tonga, is a huge expanse of ocean within our Exclusive Economic Zone, straddling the Kermadec trench and ridge, with the Kermadec Islands at its centre.
Packed with species and habitats found nowhere else on Earth, this is a place where, as we were reminded with this month's scientific voyage, strange creatures new to science are discovered every time anyone looks beneath the surface. Whales, dolphins, turtles, sharks, tuna and more abound.
National Geographic has declared it one of the last pristine ocean sites on the planet. Scientists at a series of conferences over the last five years have said its relatively untouched state provides a unique opportunity to observe nature and learn lessons that could benefit us all. If there was ever a place that cried out for protection, as New Zealand's global legacy to the planet, this is it.
At least 20 species either new to New Zealand or new to science have been discovered, including eels, lionfish, sharks and sponges. As a staging post for migratory whales on their annual journey from the tropics to the Southern Ocean and back, the Kermadecs provide a unique observatory for scientists.
The Kermadecs, for some, represent a development opportunity. The mineral wealth, they say, should be exploited. But it is not commercially viable to dig up 700,000 square kilometres of seabed, some of it more than 10km deep. And when it comes to fishing, the total contribution to our multibillion-dollar industry is about $100,000.
Setting aside the Kermadec region as a marine sanctuary would restore some of New Zealand's clean green reputation. This is not just an opinion; research on the views of consumers and tourists in key overseas markets proves its truth.
Protecting most, if not all, of this incredible place would not disadvantage anyone. On the contrary, it would restore some of New Zealand's tarnished green reputation on the world stage, and leave a global legacy for future generations. A refuge for marine species. A place where science can continue to discover new species with as-yet- unknown benefits to our people.
Chris Howe is the WWF-New Zealand executive director.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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