The South Island’s West Coast Marine Protection Forum looks set to be the first region to put a marine protected area (MPA) proposal to the Government under the new(ish) MPA Policy and Implementation Plan, with the group recently wrapping up an extensive consultation process. The proposal that was put out for public comment outlined four main sites and five smaller areas for a range of protection measures including marine reserves and fisheries act protected areas, contained within the area from just north of Karamea to just south of Haast. More than 1100 submissions were received, signaling that New Zealanders really care about this relatively remote part of the country.
The process has been a lengthy one with the forum, which includes a wide range of stakeholders (fishers, iwi, environmental groups, tourism etc.), being established five years ago. The MPA Policy and Implementation Plan encourages a community-based approach to marine management, and was established following the successful introduction of the Fiordland Marine Management Area by the stakeholder group The Guardians of Fiordland in 2005. The Labour-led Government obviously believed that this community-led initiative was more likely to result in successful MPA introductions than the traditional ’top down’ approach where the Department of Conservation (DoC) proposed sites for future reserves and often faced intense public opposition.
Whilst I am very supportive of the new approach, I have in the past voiced concerns about the degree to which scientific knowledge of the marine environment will be considered during the decision making process. I was initially quite alarmed to see that the West Coast Forum did not contain any marine scientists. However, a trawl through the minutes of the forum meetings revealed that members did indeed seek advice and briefings from scientists including those from DoC, the Ministry of Fisheries and NIWA. Scientists nationwide were also given the opportunity to comment during the public consultation process. The West Coast forum was established prior to the new policy, and so future regional groups will be required to have at least one scientist on each committee.
Being a remote and wild stretch of coast, it is perhaps not surprising that the level of scientific knowledge and understanding about marine life and ecosystem functioning in this region is not as high as other parts of the country. In days gone, opponents used such knowledge gaps to argue against marine protection. The new system is based on habitat classification, as it is widely accepted that species assemblages are largely predicted by physical features of habitat such as substratum type (sand, reef etc.) and water depth. Such information is relatively easy to obtain, and a spread of MPAs among different habitat types makes protection more inclusive, and provides for species that migrate among different habitat types during their life cycle. The proposal on the West Coast therefore includes, among other habitats, estuaries, coastal and offshore reefs and sand flats.
The West Coast process is far from settled — now that the submissions have been analyzed, the proposal will be modified accordingly prior to being submitted to Minter’s of Fisheries and Conservation for consideration. The members of this forum deserve credit for putting in the years of hard work, debate and consultation. Unfortunately, on a national level we are far from 10% by 2010, but at least things are moving in the right direction.