Contribution by Philip Clow
The Waikato Regional Council (WRC) are reviewing their coastal plan due to the Motiti decision. The Court of Appeal Motiti decision refers to Environmental Court of Appeal who ruled in favour of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Motiti Island Group allowing them to prohibit the take of all plants and animals in a number of separate areas. This means regional councils have been given the power to manage biodiversity in their territorial waters which up until the Motiti decision has been managed by the Quota Management System (1986) and the Fisheries Act (1996).
The WRC have prepared a Coastal Plan Review, with the main focus area being Further Marine Biodiversity Protection Options. This focus area contains four options which were open for public feedback up until the 29/07/22 and are listed below:
Option 1: Leave to other legislation (no new rules) Option 2: Prohibit disturbance of the seabed or foreshore in specifically identified and mapped areas.
Option 3: Prohibit the taking of all plants and animals in specifically identified and mapped areas.
Option 4: Allow some activities in specifically identified and mapped areas.
This should be a major concern for all users of the Mercury Island Group because a number of islands in the group have been identified as an area of Outstanding Natural Character and as a Significant Indigenous Biodiversity Area by scientists. In particular, this includes Kawhitu (Stanly), Moturehu Island (Double Island), and Whakau (Red Mercury Island). The implications of Options 2, 3 and 4 being passed into law could mean the closure of these areas currently used for recreational and commercial fishing activities.
This area encompassing the Mercury Island Group has contentious fisheries, primarily crayfish and snapper. As a response, a number of changes have been implemented by the Quota Management System and the Fisheries Act. For both of these species, anecdotal evidence is showing improved numbers of crayfish and snapper as shown by the ease at which both commercial and recreational fishers can achieve suitable catch rates.
The commercial crayfishing management area, which includes the Mercury Island Group (CRA2), ranges from Te Ari Point (north of Leigh) to East Cape. In this area crayfish stocks showed a marked decrease over several years. The government addressed this with an initial 15% quota reduction in 2016 and then in 2019 another 60% quota reduction was implemented by the government. This is a total catch reduction of 75% which has removed over 90T of catch from the commercial fishery meaning the area (CRA2) is now down to 80T from a commercial catch of 236 tonne in the 2013/14 year. Because of this heavy reduction in catch there is now far less effort in the Mercury Island Group and commercial fishers are maximising returns by only fishing when market prices are high. Alongside this, the recreational bag limit was recently reduced from six crayfish per person to three.
Regarding the snapper fishery, it is acknowledged that the snapper fish stock in snapper area One (SNA1, see figure 1) was under stress in the 1980’s. Changes were implemented with the introduction of the Quota Management System (1986) which capped the annual tonnage of snapper that could be landed. The commercial catch prior to 1986 was between 5000-6000 tonnes and continued that way until the catch history appeal program was completed along with sna1 stock assessments resulting in a commercial snapper catch of 4500 tonnes which is what the commercial industry is constrained to now. These management changes which included recreational bag limit reductions and changes to recreational minimum legal size for sna1 has resulted in a total allowable catch (Commercial, Recreational, Customary and other mortality for all parties of 8050 tonne per year. There is significant anecdotal evidence from many Whitianga based recreational and commercial fishers who are seeing robust catch rates.
Map showing coverage of SNA1 encompassing the Mercury Islands Group.
Regarding other fish species, chiefly reef fish, nineteen species of reef fish (They are banded wrasse, black angelfish, butterfly perch, giant boarfish, green wrasse, kelpfish(hiwahiwi), long-finned boarfish, marblefish, notch-headed marblefish, painted moki, red moki, red mullet (goatfish), red pigfish, rock cod, sandagers wrasse, scarlet wrasse, silver drummer, splendid perch, toadstool groper) have been decommercialised in Fisheries Management Area 1 (FMA1 - see Figure 3). This was enacted due to the effects of gill netting during the 1980's and 1990’s. Not only were these species decommercialized, but gill netting was banned from areas within the Mercury Islands along with other parts of FMA1. Surveys should show adequate numbers of reef fish living in the waters of the Mercury Islands. The vast majority of these species are not caught by line fishing as spearfishing is the main method of capture. However, these fish are rarely targeted as they are not good eating.
Coverage of FMA1
For a detailed map of where gill netting was banned in Mercury Islands go to https://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/conservation/marine-and-coastal/fishing/area-based-restrictions-hi-res.pdf
Over the last 9 years a collaborative process called Seachange has been deliberating over far-reaching initiatives to future proof the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park (see map). The collaborative process involved Iwi, DOC, Fisheries NZ, Environmental NGOs, Auckland Regional Council, Aquaculture Industries, Ports of Auckland, Farming, Forestry, Recreational and Commercial fishing who have delivered recommendations on the management of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
We are going to have new rules under the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park initiatives which include proposals for marine protected areas (MPA’s) in places such as The Alderman Islands and a large part of the surrounding waters, part of Slipper Island and some of its surrounding waters and a basic doubling in size of the current MPA at the Whanganui-a-Hei site (Hahei). Also under the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Fish Plan, changes are proposed around how the current fish stocks are to be managed plus another look at managing the protective species interaction along with large restrictions on certain bottom contact fishing methods.
Map showing the extent of the Hauraki Marine Park, including existing and proposed protected areas.
The feedback I have given the WRC is to implement Option 1: Leave to other legislation (no new rules). This is because in my opinion the biodiversity in the Mercury Island Group is resilient and in a relatively healthy state due to past, present and upcoming management initiatives as mentioned above. After seeing the changes and pressure on this area in my 44 years as a commercial and now recreational fisherman and free diver, I believe the area’s biodiversity is in a satisfactory condition.
The one fish species that is of concern in my opinion, is Hapuku. Hapuku is a species that needs attention due to declining numbers in some coastal habitats. I think a closed-to-all-types of bottom fishing area (containing rocky structure on the edge of the continental slope) is required.
An area that the WRC should be focussing on is estuarine sedimentation loading. This is referring to the increased sedimentation run-off in estuaries and harbours which will be having a significant effect on biodiversity. An example of this is the loss of sea grass, which is a known juvenile fish habitat. The WRC should be paying more attention to the sedimentation effects of short rotation, plantation forestry planted on unsuitably steep land. The estuaries around the Coromandel Ranges bear testimony to this issue whenever we have a high rainfall event.
This Mercury Island group does not have a biodiversity problem, sure it’s not as good as it was at the turn of the century. However, it has proved to be resilient and with the government-controlled Fisheries Act, along with all types of restrictions soon to be implemented by way of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Fishery’s Plan. This should be enough to safeguard what we have and continue to manage the effects of population increase.