New Zealand is an island nation built on great ocean-going traditions, and to this day it seems there is a healthy dose of salt water that flows through the veins of every one of us. Boating, fishing and water sports in general live large in the national psyche, and the beach remains the focal point for celebrations of all kinds. Meanwhile, the seas that surround us still contribute a huge amount into this nation’s economy. New Zealand’s Marine Fisheries Exclusion Economic Zone (EEZ), the expanse of ocean over which we hold special rights, is one of the largest in the world. Covering 4.4 million square kilometres, it’s an area 16 times greater than New Zealand’s landmass. Commercial fisherman hauled 418,306 tonnes of food from it last year. Three quarters of this is exported, yielding about $1.5 billion dollars for New Zealand Inc. And more than 99 per cent of the nation’s exports are shipped out over the same water, contributing to the $3.3 billion earned by our marine industries. Fish can also be a great source of protein and important oils for our diet, so our easy access to them helps bolster the nation’s health.
But all this does not come without cost. There are warnings that our native species of dolphins and sea lions are under threat of extinction, and experience shows the decline of top predators like these is often the first sign that the entire marine habitat is beginning to collapse. Already, the Hauraki Gulf Forum estimates that 70 to 80 per cent of the snapper and crayfish biomass is now gone from the Gulf’s ecosystem. Meanwhile, all around the world our oceans are being transformed by climate change in ways we cannot fully predict and severely polluted with plastics and chemicals from our industrialised world.
For centuries it has been all too convenient to think of our ocean as an untouchable wilderness, but it is thought that human activity now directly impacts almost a third of our entire EEZ. For better or worse, we are now managing this enormous expanse of sea as if it were some kind of aquatic farmland. If it is to stay fertile, and keep producing for us, we can’t keep dumping our rubbish in and hauling the animals out indiscriminately. It is vital that a real sense of national responsibility extends way beyond our shoreline. We must protect what lies beneath the waves, or wave it all goodbye.
Thankfully, positive change has already begun. The government banned bottom trawling and dredging from one third of the EEZ in 2007 and the government’s current biodiversity strategy has set a goal for increasing the extent of our marine protected areas from 1% of the total area, to 10%. And big New Zealand businesses that rely on our oceans have realised the threat to their existence, and are beginning to act in the interests of the marine environment to secure their long-term future.
So, can we meet the challenge?