NZ not walking the 'no take' ocean talk

23:45, Jun 14 2014

Through the revolving door of the White House this week goes John Key.

The Prime Minister will meet President Barack Obama overnight on Friday for talks. These pow-wows are generally described as ''warm'', ''constructive'', Usually a ''close personal bond'' is formed somewhere along the way. 

We don't get to hear too many of the actual details.  Be sure though that ocean protection won't be anywhere near the top of the talking points.

Conversation in that area could be strained given New Zealand was recently linked to a conservative alliance set on thwarting US efforts on carbon pricing and climate change. Key denied his Government are involved with the ''flat earthers,'' after clumsy manoeuvring by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott had his audience with Obama just ahead of his Kiwi neighbour.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully is also in Washington this week, where he will attend the Our Oceans conference, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. At the summit, Palau will confirm plans for its entire Exclusive Economic Zone (waters 320 kilometres out from the coastline) to close industrial-scale fishing. Considering the cut in revenue is worth about 7 per cent of the Government's budget, President Tommy Remengesau's pledge is a significant commitment. 

Kiribati is to announce commercial fishing will cease in the Phoenix Islands, protecting almost 12 per cent of its EEZ. It will become one of the largest ''no take'' reserves in the world.


Chile will signal a commitment to more large-scale sanctuaries and join the UN Fish Stocks Agreement - an accord to protect species like mackerel, tuna or swordfish. 

So what new commitments will McCully bring? Er, none. Awkward.

That's despite a personal phonecall from Kerry to McCully last month. Kerry, an ocean and climate change champion, is spearheading efforts to curb overfishing, acidification and pollution.

The US administration had hoped for a wider ''Pacific Commitment'' on marine protected areas (MPAs), which would have tied nicely to their ''pivot'' to the region. On the wish list were new measures from Palau, around the Pitcairn Islands, the Cook Islands - and protection for New Zealand's Kermadec Islands. The lack of commitment from Wellington could only be viewed as disappointing. 

Conservation Minister Nick Smith claims to have upped the ante on marine protection - choosing World Oceans Day earlier this month to open a reserve in Akaroa Harbour. He promised to create a record number of reserves - eight this year - to reach a target of 10 per cent. 

Progress is slower than an endangered turtle. Only 0.4 per cent of New Zealand's marine environment is designated ''no take''. 

Smith's comments this week -  that there is no evidence to suggest Maui's dolphins need further protection over and above current measures - drew a collective gasp from the environmental lobby. It came after the International Whaling Commission said the Government must act immediately to protect the remaining 55 critically endangered mammals.

While keeping domestic conservationists happy may be of little interest, Key and McCully are also in the US to shore up support for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. 

If New Zealand can't step up and deliver new ocean protection commitments, under the gaze of world and business leaders, scientists and activists, can it credibly claim to be a Pacific - never mind a global - leader?