The oceans across which our ancestors and tangata whenua sailed to reach Aotearoa/New Zealand, and which thousands of New Zealanders fish from, sail through and swim in every year are under attack. The attack, a sustained assault on the sea and its natural bounty, has left the oceans reeling. But there is some good news in an otherwise bleak state of affairs for our marine environment.
As a nation surrounded by sea water, and being the surface 12% of a sunken continent, New Zealand has intricate and inextricable links with the sea. As a nation where one of the major industries is fisheries, the well being of the marine environment is more important than the emphasis we currently place on it. With this borne in mind, there is room for significant improvement on how we treat the marine environment, the species that live in it and the quality of the sea water.
Notably fisheries have improved. The fisheries crisis peaked about 20 years ago when about 650,000 tons was being caught. The annual catch has been less than 450,000 tons since and that rate continues to improve. 84% of fisheries were being harvested at a rate considered to be acceptable. That sounds good, but it is offset by 16% of unsustainable fisheries, some of which have completely collapsed and must close whilst stocks replenish.
Our extractive activities such as oil and gas are not sustainable. In the 9 years of National being in office, despite a global example of oil rig mismanagement occurring in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deep Horizon well incident, no serious effort was made to improve our ability to handle a large scale blowout. That caused large scale disruption to fisheries in the Gulf, as well as to shore based activities such as tourism, and the oil washing up would have closed beaches heading into the peak tourist season. New Zealand had then, and as far I am aware, still has no capacity to handle such an event. Even the running aground in 2011 of the freighter off the entrance to Tauranga Harbour sorely tested our ability to handle a marine environment emergency.
Our ports are handling more cruise liners and other shipping. Due to the increased tonnage passing through, the likelihood of ballast water containing invasive species is increasing, as is the likelihood of non-compliance with harbour regulations about dumping of waste or ships running into submerged obstacles such reefs, wrecks and so forth.
Coastal development is increasing. Projects to facilitate coastal development such as dredging, land reclamation, removing of coastal vegetation – which used to come right down to the sea prior to European settlement – and residential development, among other activities are all increasing. Their impacts have included increasing siltation, disruption of seabed environments.
Whilst the fisheries report is encouraging, the rest of it is grim. New Zealand needs to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with maritime emergencies and appropriately resource regional authorities with the means to deal with them. It needs to more closely monitor the coastal development going on and if necessary revise planning documents such as the Coastal Policy Statement to cope with these changes.