Oceans '12

Element - - Cover Story - By Andy Ken­wor­thy

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?

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