The brutal decline in the Hauraki Gulf’s marine health over the last few decades galvanised an Auckland woman to take a role in reversing the trend.
My first encounter with the Hauraki Gulf was as child. I grew up in Hamilton, a long way from sea, but when I was young my father and grandfather built a simple bach at Maraetai – complete with long-drop and a rusty-coloured rain water supply from the corrugated iron tank. I remember getting up before dawn, rowing out in our old dinghy and throwing out a net to catch fish for breakfast.
When I was a teenager, my father decided to take up boating and we spent many holidays sailing around Gulf, right out to Great Barrier Island and down to Whangamata. One of the advantages of a trimaran is that you’re very low to the water; I remember sunfish lazily swimming past and lots of sharks. I spent hours snorkelling reefs; there were so many fish and lots of seaweed. Those experiences have stayed with me all my life.
Time moved on and I left home. I trained initially as a lawyer, and for some years specialised in resource management and large urban development work. I then headed overseas, following my husband who had taken on a job in South Africa.
What brought me be back to the Gulf was having a child of my own. I really wanted to show Tanya what had helped make my childhood so special. So about 15 years ago, we packed up and came home.
By this time my father was sailing a keeler, so we explored the
old haunts and further afield. When I got underwater again with my mask and snorkel I was horrified. I struggled to show my daughter a fish; the reefs were stripped of kelp, and in places like Great Barrier Island, where there still were kelp beds, the fish were furtive or not there at all.
What had happened? I didn’t expect snapper, crayfish and other large fish to be there in the same numbers because of the heavy fishing pressure – but what about all the little fish no-one was targeting? It was as if the entire system had collapsed.
I wanted answers, so I started on a journey to find out what was going on with the Hauraki Gulf and what we could do to fix it. The Gulf was once an extraordinary place; it was full of enormous schools of fish, flocks of seabirds, pods of dolphins and enormous whales.
One of my favourite quotes was written by American author and game fisherman Zane Grey in 1929, fishing off Great Mercury Island:
Raewyn Peart is the policy director of the Environmental Defence Society.
I feel an aching sadness and a deep sense of loss when I compare this to what we now see out in the Gulf.
In 2013 the opportunity came up to get involved with Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari. To be honest, I was pretty reluctant at the beginning. I’m essentially a writer and researcher; I’d never been involved in a process like this but I was so passionate about the need to do something I decided I had to give it a shot.
And it’s been an incredible journey sitting around a table with a diverse group of people trying to reach common ground. At the start I eyed the others very suspiciously, assuming they just wanted to make more money from exploiting the Gulf.
At the beginning, when we tried to work out what we could all agree on, we came up with the vision of the Hauraki Gulf becoming productive and abundant. Everyone wanted to see the Gulf full of life again, although we weren’t all on the same page as to how we should get there.
We all agreed we needed to turn the situation around within a
generation and we always managed to bring ourselves back to this vision when we were tackling difficult issues. The Hauraki Gulf needed to come first.
These people are real community leaders because engaging with this project is not for the faint-hearted. Over the three years we’ve been working on the plan, we’ve developed a strong culture of trust and collaboration that has helped individual members share information they would normally withhold in an adversarial process.
This has helped to ground the plan in real-life experience. The strength of the group is vital as we need to be able to jointly stand behind it and support it when it becomes public.
I’ve focused my efforts on addressing the two main drivers of ecological degradation in the Gulf – high levels of sedimentation and benthic disturbance by fishing equipment. If the plan can effectively address these two issues, we’ll see life coming back. If not, it will always struggle and we will see ongoing decline.
Being on Sea Change’s Stakeholder Working Group (SWG) has been life-changing. I’ve learnt so much from the others around the table. I’ve been introduced to the iwi world view, and its approach to the natural environment which puts people at the heart of issue, with people and the environment being part of an integral whole.
This brings real strength to process. I’ve also gained a much