Nelson's marine reserves encouraging

BILL MOORE
Last updated 11:00 11/01/2014

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Marine reserves have had a controversial past but the two on the Tasman Bay coastline are proving their worth.

Conservation Minister and Nelson MP Nick Smith takes special pleasure in the positive research results he released on the Tonga Island and Horoirangi marine reserves this week.

About as green-leaning as National gets, Dr Smith was keen to pose with his kayak at Horoirangi beside the Glen, north of Nelson, and to say that the irrefutable evidence of success was "so encouraging . . . especially given my extensive involvement in both these reserves being established".

His ambition to create a record number of new marine reserves this year had been reinvigorated, he said, describing the marine environment as "the new frontier of conservation".

It's a stated intention that will have thrilled conservationists but brought jitters among some commercial and recreational interests who fear that too much of the country's oceans will be locked against them.

In fact less than 10 per cent of New Zealand's coastline is covered marine protected status, a designation that covers both marine reserves, where no take of any sort is allowed, and marine protected areas, where some take is permitted.

However statistics like that mean little to a community adjoining an area of coastline when reserves are mooted. The Tonga Island reserve along a 12 kilometre stretch of the Abel Tasman National Park coast was set up 20 years ago; Horoirangi, which extends from the Glen to Cable Bay, was created in 2006.

In both cases opinion was strongly divided, broadly pitting conservationists against commercial interests and many - though not all - in the recreational fishing sector.

Here is Fishing Paper editor Daryl Crimp (then Free Seas spokesman) on the announcement of the Horoirangi reserve in 2005: "Recreational fishers are getting exasperated that we are not being listened to . . . the reason we strongly oppose it is the area is still a key recreational fishing area."

A couple of years later the then Nelson inshore fishing industry spokesman Darren Guard caused a chorus of dismay from Green letter writers to the Nelson Mail when he colourfully said of Horoirangi, which is not far from Nelson's sewage ponds and their outlet, "the only thing that's abundant at the site are rocks, turds and tampons".

He couldn't say that now because the research clearly shows big improvements in both the crayfish and blue cod populations, which are steadily increasing in both numbers and individual sizes, just as they have continued to do at Tonga Island over a much longer time.

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These days amateurs' boats are frequently moored just outside the reserve boundaries as their occupants try to take advantage of spillover and in the last two summers the Glen coast has become a hotspot for spearfishers who swim out from the shore to target kingfish, which are present in big numbers.

That can't be attributed to the reserve - kingfish, like snapper, are seasonal visitors. But the study identifies 21 species of reef fish within the reserve and in the control areas, and predictably shows that cod and crayfish both grow much bigger when safe from hooks, pots and divers with spears.

A surprise is that almost no legally harvestable paua were found in either reserve or in the control areas. Not a surprise is that spotties were the most common fish of all.

Both reports were produced by Nelson company Davidson Environmental for the Department of Conservation and owner Rob Davidson, who does much of the grid diving in the surveys, says the work shows marine reserves are "fantastic things".

"We don't have enough of them, especially in the Marlborough Sounds where there's 1700 kilometres of coastline and only about 12km of reserve, so that's .02 per cent. That's pretty pathetic."

Mr Davidson says similar results for blue cod and crayfish are produced at most of the other 30 or so marine reserves, highlighting the territorial behaviour of both species.

"Some species are highly mobile and the marine reserves don't necessarily benefit them over the longer term, but certainly do while they're using that area."

On the paua anomaly, he says the Tasman Bay coastline is "largely a stunted population" and this is also true in some other parts of the country where they don't reach the minimum legal size, 125 millimetres. Poor growing conditions are believed to be the cause.

But on the plus side for divers and snorkellers, there are already "a couple of spots" along the 5km Horoirangi coastline that are "quite exciting".

"It's well on the way to recovery and where it will lead, that'll be interesting."

Horoirangi offers foot access from both ends, Mr Davidson says.

"There's actually bugger-all marine reserves where you don't need a boat, so that's quite nice."

DOC is also pleased with the results from both reserves, with Motueka conservation services manager Mark Townsend telling the Mail that the findings show encouraging signs of a return to a more natural state.

Mr Townsend says although the Tonga Island coastline is an ecosystem of low productivity with changes relatively slow to happen over the reserve's 20 years, there has still been a remarkable recovery of blue cod and crayfish, popularly fished in the past.

"Horoirangi Marine Reserve was only established in 2006 so it is still quite young in terms of natural recovery. Even so, significant differences are emerging in the size and abundance of lobsters and blue cod in the reserve compared to outside it."

He says Abel Tasman National Park tourism operators and residents of Cable Bay and the Glen are very supportive of the reserves and quick to report illegal fishing.

Both reserves are regularly patrolled, particularly over summer.

"Our staff patrolling the marine reserves find most people they come into contact with are supportive of the marine reserves and appreciate having them."

The fishing industry today is also more sympathetic to marine reserves. Seafood New Zealand chief executive Tim Pankhurst says the evidence of its conservation ethic is in the way that the industry voluntarily declared 30 per cent of New Zealand's vast exclusive economic zone as benthic protected areas that won't be trawled.

"As long as we have the opportunity to be consulted on the placement of reserves - and they're in the right place - then we're generally supportive of them."

The right place?

"That's where the debate often centres, isn't it."

Mr Pankhurst, a longtime recreational fisherman and diver, says marine reserves open up fantastic diving opportunities and he doesn't buy the argument that they prevent ordinary Kiwis from catching fish to feed their families.

"That assumes that we're some sort of Third World country where we rely on fish from the sea to survive."

As a "reasonably successful" amateur he says a cost-benefit analysis of the catch from his pleasure boat would be horrifying.

"It would be a damned sight cheaper to go and buy it and as far as surf-casting goes, with all due respect to surfcasters, that's an exercise in hope."

Mr Pankhurst says the industry today recognises that it operates in a shared fishery and that it has to co-exist with the customary and recreational sectors.

"I think it would be in everybody's interests if there was a stronger recreational voice, a more cohesive body that could act on behalf of the recreational sector."

In common with New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council president Geoff Rowling, he sees the co-operative plan demonstrated in Fiordland where there is a network of reserves, areas for recreational fishing only, and commercial zones, as "a good model".

"We don't want conflict with the recreational sector and a lot of us straddle both."

Mr Rowling, who lives in the Motueka region and has closely followed the Tonga Island reserve's development in particular, says it's true that crayfish numbers along the Abel Tasman coast there have improved but that the reserve is just one factor behind that.

"It's probably largely a result of the removal of commercial crayfishing from along that coastline for the last 20 years as well."

Mr Rowling says "spin-doctor Smith" is talking up the Government's conservation moves while making budget cuts "all over the place" and that other marine issues such as greater commercial access to some fisheries are "swept under the carpet".

But he too acknowledges the positive impact of reserves, especially on crayfish stocks, and says there's "probably" some spillover into unreserved areas.

"There's support for marine reserves among quite a large number of people who go recreational fishing, but they just want a fair crack of the whip overall."

He says that means giving the recreational sector more of a say when commercial, customary and recreational interests are weighed up in decisions around reserves and other aspects of managing stocks.

"At the moment, we just get the crumbs."

Tasman Bay, where snapper stocks are resurgent after years of heavy overfishing brought a collapse two decades ago, is a classic example, Mr Rowling says.

"Are the same methods of fishing that caused the collapse in the first place going to be allowed to continue to occur, or are we going to be a bit more enlightened and use the knowledge we've built up in the last 30 years?"

It's also important to understand that in the debate on all aspects of fisheries management, it's "public fishers" that must be recognised, not just people who "go out and have a few beers and a bit of fun", he says.

"Over the last few years in my role as president, I'm actually amazed at how many people in our small coastal communities are reliant on their reasonable access to fish to supplement their diet. This is serious stuff about people who are living pretty much on the poverty line and fish is a really important food source for them."

He says politicians of all colours need to recognise that.

"We are islanders living on an island nation and we should have first call on reasonable access to our fish stocks," Mr Rowling says.

"It ought to be New Zealanders first, and then what's left over the corporates can sell if they feel they need to build another house."

- The Nelson Mail

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