The Government has massive reforms underway on resource management and three waters – but its next environmental priority should be a new fisheries and oceans policy, writes Rod Oram

“Today I am going to outline the Government’s plans for the development of an Oceans Policy. It will be a policy as significant as the resource management law reform process begun 15 years ago,” Pete Hodgson, fisheries minister at the time in the Clark government, said in a major speech on October 12, 2000.

But for the next 21 years, reforms were thwarted by vested interests and political inertia. Yet, evidence we were causing marine ecosystems to deteriorate significantly kept piling up. Key causes included some fishing practices at sea and some issues on land such as soil erosion and storm water flows that damaged marine environments.

We have vast work to do to solve the land-based causes. But the fundamental reforms underway of the Resource Management Act and of infrastructure for fresh, waste and storm water should make a big improvement in coming years.

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The Government has yet to commit to deep regulatory reforms for fishing and oceans. But events of the past 10 days, and the Government’s marine plans for the rest of this term, represent the greatest, though still partial, progress in decades.

On June 16, Forest and Bird won a High Court case against the Minister of Fisheries, Stuart Nash, for the way he had inappropriately set the tarakihi commercial catch limit by factoring a voluntary industry fishing plan into the decision while ignoring his ministry’s own policies.

It was a very rare win by environmentalists against the seriously flawed fishing Quota Management System. It was also a signal that voluntary responses by the fishing industry have very little credibility with the public. The sector is losing its social licence to operate.

On June 17, David Parker, who replaced Nash as Fisheries Minister last December, announced inshore fishing vessels would have to have onboard cameras to monitor their activities; he also announced vessels would have to bring their entire catch back to port rather than discarding unwanted bycatch at sea. Coupled with tighter but simpler rules on bycatch, the Government believes compliance rates will rise and scientists will gather valuable data and insights from the bycatch which will help them improve the QMS and its enforcement.

On June 22, Parker announced a package of policies to help revitalise the rapidly ailing ecosystems of the Hauraki Gulf. They include:

“The creation of 18 new marine protection areas and a framework to support the active restoration of some of the most biodiverse regions in the Gulf. The 18 new protected areas will increase marine protection in the Gulf almost threefold.

“A Fisheries Plan with a range of changes to fishing practices and catch settings, including restricting trawl fishing to within carefully selected corridors.

“Better monitoring to improve our understanding of the marine environment and track progress over time.

“An expanded programme of protected species management.

“Working together with mana whenua and local communities on local area coastal management.

“Promoting a prosperous, sustainable aquaculture industry.”

The new practices will require some 50 changes to fishing regulations; and the new protected areas will require changes to regulations for marine protected areas to allow, for example, recreational and customary fishing in some of them.

The announcement was welcomed by environmental groups such as Forest and Bird and Greenpeace which have campaigned vigorously for years for big changes. They emphasised, though, this was only a start and they will keep lobbying for much deeper change.

But even this welcome, if modest, start was slow coming. Back in April 2017, the government received a comprehensive strategic plan for revitalising the Gulf called the Sea Change Tai Timu Tai Pari Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan.

It was the fruit of three years’ work by a 14-member collaborative group representing mana whenua, environmental groups, and the fishing, aquaculture, and agriculture sectors. The plan made over 180 proposals for the Gulf and its catchments across land, freshwater and marine domains. But the report languished because local and central government had no political will to address the complex but vital remedies it proposed; and there were still great conflicts within and between sectors.

The politics began to change, however, during the first term of the Ardern government. In 2019, the Prime Minister asked her Chief Science Adviser, Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, to report on the fishing sector. In the October 2020 election both Labour and Greens pledged to act on the Hauraki Gulf, though the latter went much further by also offering an ambitious and vital oceans policy.

The failure of New Zealand First to return to Parliament deprived the fishing industry of its staunchest political allies. This has made possible the latest fishing policy announcements from the Labour Government.

Then in March, the Chief Science Adviser delivered her report, which had been much delayed by her office’s intensive work on the Covid pandemic. It’s clear from Gerrard’s introduction why a science report turned into a sweeping and comprehensive set of deep policy reforms which an extensive industry expert advisory panel helped her formulate.

“The single biggest challenge to progress is the lack of trust and shared vision between stakeholders – in stark contrast to our last project (on rethinking plastics), there is little evidence of widespread social and cultural licence for change.”

“Solving these problems will need people to work together on a system change, as partners not adversaries. Such a system change needs to address not just commercial fishing, but recreational fishing too. It needs to address not just fishing, but the many other environmental stressors on the marine environment – climate change, land-based impacts such as sedimentation, and pollution.”

This chart from her report lays out the deeply fragmented sector:

And this chart shows the deeply fragmented government and regulatory response:

The report also explores many of the inadequacies of the Quota Management System, starting with the unknown state of the stocks of species accounting for 31 percent of the total catch, and the elderly data used to assess many of the known stocks, as this chart shows:

The single most important recommendation by Gerrard is to change from a simplistic analysis of a species’ stock to a complex analysis of the health of ecosystems, since all living things are dependent on them and contribute to them. Then the healthier the ecosystems, the more resilient and productive they will be for the benefit of commercial, recreational and customary fishers.

Crucially, she points out that the existing Fisheries Act of 1996 has extensive provisions, yet to be used, which would allow the government to begin applying ecosystems measures to fishing quotas. This would be a highly valuable interim step before a thorough reform of fisheries regulations and policies in coming years.

Marine protected areas are the most important way to help ocean ecosystems recover their health. A study by 26 scientists was published in March by Nature, the peer-reviewed science journal, entitled Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate.

It identified specific areas that, if protected, would safeguard over 80 percent of the habitats for endangered marine species, and increase fishing catches by more than eight million metric tonnes a year globally.

The study is also the first to quantify the potential release of carbon dioxide into the ocean from trawling, a widespread fishing practice—and finds that trawling is pumping hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the ocean every year by, for example, disturbing seabeds. It’s a volume of emissions similar to those of aviation.

“Ocean life has been declining worldwide because of overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change. Yet only 7 percent of the ocean is currently under some kind of protection,” said Dr Enric Sala, the study’s lead author.

The Campaign for Nature gives extensive coverage of the study here; as does National Geographic here. The UN’s Environment Programme tracks the level of protection of land and sea here. The sparseness of such areas is stark on its global map. Online, you can zoom in to see local detail such as in our part of the globe.

A campaign to protect 30 percent of oceans and 30 percent of land across the globe by 2030 is being led by the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, an intergovernmental group of 60 countries co-chaired by Costa Rica and France, with the UK as Ocean co-chair. The history of this is explained in this article by the US Council on Foreign Relations.

The next crucial fora for the Coalition are the UN’s global negotiations on biodiversity in Kunming, China, in October, and the UN’s global negotiations on climate in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

Here in Aotearoa, support for extensive expansion of marine protected areas has grown fast in recent years. For example, the idea of protecting 30 percent of the Hauraki Gulf is now embraced by some of the organisations that had participated in the Sea Change collaboration, even though they were opposed at that time, says Raewyn Peart, the policy director of the Environmental Defence Society, who was a member of the forum.

An example of a local temporary ban is the two-year rahui Ngāti Pāoa has placed around Waiheke’s coast on gathering scallops, mussels, crayfish and abalone to give the species a chance to recover. Meanwhile, the Greens’ marine policy calls for 30 percent of the Gulf to be protected permanently.

The Government has its hands very full this term with RMA and freshwater reforms, both led by Parker. But once that work’s done, EDS and other environmental NGOs hope Parker will turn his insights and energy to fisheries reform and to creating Aotearoa’s first proper oceans policy. Under global best practice, for example, marine spatial planning would be one of the key tools. Over the past decade, EDS has produced a series of extensive reports, led by Peart, on such fisheries and ocean policies.

With members of the public becoming increasingly aware of the dire state of the Hauraki Gulf and other marine environments around the country, hopefully we will make some real progress by, say 2025 – the 25th anniversary of Hodgson’s promise.

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