50 Years of Lessons from Marine Reserves in New Zealand
Protecting marine ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabits them is a complicated task. The sheer size of the world’s oceans and seas makes any regulation difficult to introduce or successfully enforce. The task becomes even more complicated when considering the logistics of the different countries needing to work together, and seeing eye-to-eye on various goals and conservation benchmarks. However, some countries around the globe have tried their own approaches to marine conservation, with varying degrees of success.
According to a study in Biological Conservation, by many measures, New Zealand could be considered a success story. Progress in protecting the country’s marine ecosystems has been slow but continuous, and there are now 35 reserves, with more planned. The idea has “considerable support with the general public, politicians, scientists, teachers and conservation interests,” and there are efforts underway to create a networked system of reserves. Attempts are in process to create a full system of marine reserves. In fact, the idea of marine reserves themselves was pioneered by academics in New Zealand, who wanted to create areas where they could study without their work being disrupted and results tainted by commercial fishing operations. Eventually, the needs of academics pushed the plans for reserves forward, and now several dozen exist, with more on the way.
It’s important to note that there is great confusion around exactly what constitutes a “marine reserve” because “in different parts of the world the same words (marine park, reserve, sanctuary, etc.) are used to describe completely different things. In the USA, a Marine Sanctuary can permit almost any activity except drilling for oil, whereas in Australia Sanctuary Zones are strictly no-take areas within large multi-purpose Marine Parks.” This has led to the proliferation of a term known as “marine protected area” (MPA) which is now commonly in use, and has become so broad and vague that it has “little value.”
Here again, New Zealand differentiates itself. Marine reserves in New Zealand are places where “no disturbance is allowed,” and this is spelled out to a degree of specificity that leaves no doubt about the intent, and how serious the protection is. The necessary rules for marine reserves are:
- No fishing of any kind.
- No removal of material, living, dead, or mineral.
- No dredging, dumping, construction, or any other activity that would disturb natural processes.
- Subject to the above, the encouragement of people to view, appreciate, study, and publicize the results of this protection. These rules and the reserves are permanent.
The author notes that there have often been apparent “turf wars” between marine reserves and “resource management” because “the idea of marine reserves,” that is, a hands off approach where the ecosystem is left to regulate itself without human intervention or disturbances, “is contrary to active management.” This has led fishery authorities to use “every possible argument” to delay or block marine reserves, and “at the recent Forum to decide protections around the sub-Antarctic islands, fisheries would only back half of Campbell Island waters for a marine reserve, because, they said, a crab fishery might develop there in the future.” Here, we see the age-old tug of war between intrinsic and extrinsic value: resource managers wish to have a stake in managing the ecosystem in case some type of economic benefit might arise. The marine reserve system contradicts this and recognizes the value in the ecosystem itself, and thus tensions arise.
Overall, this review notes that the pioneering experience of New Zealand in protecting marine ecosystems shows that these reserves can deliver “a wide range of benefits to science, conservation and general management.” The author states that progress has been so steady and meaningful, that other nations should study New Zealand as a success story and begin to consider the implementation of a geographically widespread worldwide network of similar systems. This is not only due to marine ecosystems being, by their very nature, broad and connected, but because a wider network would help to absorb the negative effects of any single accident or instance of local damage. The author asserts that “New Zealand is still developing marine reserves and the existing set is not yet an ideal system, but it is sufficient to demonstrate the principles needed for such a worldwide system.” From their perspective, the idea of a global marine reserve network is an “obviously sensible” one. For animal advocates, action taken to protect the environment in New Zealand is encouraging, and this study is a worthwhile read for those who wish to understand how a country can meaningfully work towards marine protection.