Blow for fisheries as court win hands marine controls to councils

Fish life around the Rena remains during salvage operations.
Darryl Torckler

Fish life around the Rena remains during salvage operations.

An attempt to save the marine life that flourished on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga after the Rena was wrecked could now mean councils have more say on the way coastal areas, including fisheries, are managed.

Protection of some species like crayfish, the critically endangered Maui's dolphin, as well as some fragile marine ecosystems, could now be possible in some areas.

The High court ruling this week sees the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) working through the judge's ruling to fully understand its implications.

More than 40 cray pots went into the area once the restriction was lifted.
Delwyn Dickey

More than 40 cray pots went into the area once the restriction was lifted.

* Crayfish 'functionally extinct' in the Hauraki Gulf
*  Calls to extend Leigh marine reserve after serious fish decline
*  Father of marine reserves Bill Ballantine has died

The Rena disaster occurred when a container ship and cargo vessel stuck fast on the Astrolabe Reef in October 2011. 

With an exclusion zone placed around the ship so salvaging could take place, the reef effectively became a marine reserve and marine life exploded.

Motiti Rohe Moana Trust's TA Sayers wanted answers from MPI why they opened up Astrolabe Reef to fishing before hearing ...
Delwyn Dickey

Motiti Rohe Moana Trust's TA Sayers wanted answers from MPI why they opened up Astrolabe Reef to fishing before hearing their urgent request.

But that protection stopped in April 2016 when access to the reef was restored for vessels under 500 tonnes, despite an urgent request to the Ministry of Primary Industries by the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust, on behalf of Nga Hapu o te Moutere o Motiti, for a two year temporary closure of the reef to all fishing.

MPI didn't action the urgent request, fishing started again and the reef was decimated.

Motiti Rohe Moana Trust contended the Bay of Plenty Regional council had the ability under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to protect the reef - the council said it legally couldn't.

Image of the Rena taken during a recent dive survey.
Andy Belcher/Darryl Torckler

Image of the Rena taken during a recent dive survey.

The Environment Court ruled it could. While the High Court ruling set aside the Environment Court ruling, this week the High Court ruled regional councils can regulate fishing activity to protect native marine species.

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Regional councils have always had the responsibility to look after the marine environment all the way out to12 nautical miles, Forest & Bird lawyer at the court hearing Sally Gepp said.

"But there has always been a question mark over whether that included controlling the effects of fishing." 

Both the Fishing Act and RMA apply in the marine area especially where biodiversity is concerned.

"Maintaining biodiversity is not a duty under the Fisheries Act, but it is a duty under the RMA," Gepp said.

"So the effects of fishing on native biodiversity are covered by the RMA. Like pulling a fishing dredge or trawl net through a reef."

The ruling says regional councils can also control the effects of fishing on the marine environment too, she said.

While not convinced the ruling will bring huge change to fishing levels, Auckland Councillor for Waitemata and Gulf and committee member on the Hauraki Gulf Forum Mike Lee still sees benefits for the Gulf.

"Councils could make rules requiring the fishing industry to avoid adverse effects on black petrels, for instance, by mandating tori lines on all fishing boats to avoid seabirds taking the hooks of longlines."  

Having mandatory council rules - rather than the current voluntary ones - to protect marine mammals from ships and pleasure craft would be a good place to begin, he said.

The continued decline of the Hauraki gulf has been a concern for some years. One issue is the large numbers of big snapper and crayfish being caught. This is skewing the ecology of the gulf as their decline has seen an explosion in kina numbers. These are wiping out kelp forests, important to other marine life including as protection for young fish.

Last year marine ecologists Dr Tim Haggitt and University of Auckland's Dr Nick Shears considered over fishing had left so few crayfish in the Gulf they were 'functionally extinct' and called for a changes to fisheries management.

This could be taken into account under the RMA, Gepp said.

As the ecosystem was being badly damaged councils around its shores could take that into account in future regional coastal planning. This would give people more say in what their regional coastal plans look like including where fishing can happen, where it's controlled or not, and what methods can and can't be used, she said.

This could benefit marine reserves like at Leigh. High fishing pressure outside its boundaries mean it is not functioning as well as it should.

Auckland Council could look at that fishing and rather than reduce the fishing quota, ask for fishing to be reduced or the fishing method changed around the reserve to reduce surrounding catch.

Set netting and crabbing off beaches has been a huge annoyance for locals in some northern areas like Omaha. Swimmers were getting tangled in nets, and crab fishers were leaving chicken carcasses on beaches or shallow water. Fears the discarded crab bait would attract gulls to a near-by shorebird sanctuary couldn't be considered except from a health and safety perspective when applying to Auckland Council for bans.

The same applied where seashore ecosystems were being stripped and destroyed by recreational gatherers. 

Now, through council planning, people should have more say. 

"While the decision has no immediate affect on fishing anywhere," Gepp said, "It just confirms regional councils are able to impose controls should they be demonstrated as being necessary and appropriate in particular locations."

"From now on normal RMA planning processes, already occurring for land based resources, will now consider the impact for fishing."

"This is the start of the discussion," she said.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said MPI may appeal the High Court Decision.  We regret the error.

 - Stuff

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