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Why the condition of our marine environment is important

The marine environment supports a diverse range of sea life that is important for global biodiversity. A healthy marine environment supports our cultural and social well-being, and the ocean’s resources contribute to our economy.

The marine and coastal environment also plays a significant role in the Māori economy and way of life. A source of food and other resources since Māori first settled in New Zealand, the moana (ocean) is also spiritually and culturally important. Māori mythology and cosmology feature the sea god Tangaroa, son of the Earth Mother Papatūānuku and the Sky Father Ranginui.

Traditionally, the sea provided transport and a way to trade with other tribes. Kaimoana (seafood) was served to show hospitality at hui (meetings), tangi (funerals), and other gatherings. The marine environment remains important to Māori, from both customary and commercial perspectives.

The marine environment supports our economy

In 2014, the value of exports from New Zealand’s ocean fisheries was $1,419 million, or about 3 percent of our total merchandise export earnings (from exported physical goods). From 2002 to 2014, the value of seafood exports grew 31 percent (Statistics NZ, 2014).

In addition to open-sea fisheries, fish farming (aquaculture) is a fast-growing industry. From 1989 to 2011, the value of aquaculture exports increased 500 percent, to $298 million (Aquaculture New Zealand, 2012).

Marine fisheries are also economically significant for Māori, who own about 40 percent of our commercial fisheries (Aotearoa Fisheries, 2014).

Oil and gas are significant contributors to our economy. About 80 percent of New Zealand’s oil and gas production comes from marine fields, mainly in the Taranaki region. Oil and gas generate about $400 million a year in royalties (New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, 2015). In 2014, the value of crude oil exports was $1,400 million (Statistics NZ, 2014). The petroleum and minerals industry directly employed 6,410 people in New Zealand in 2012.

The marine environment also supports our tourism industry. Numerous fishing, boating, and other enterprises such as whale-watching operations support the economies of communities in locations like Kaikoura, Marlborough Sounds, and Bay of Islands.

For more detail see Environmental indicators Te taiao AotearoaOil and gas and minerals extraction and Value of fisheries and aquaculture.

The marine environment supports our indigenous biodiversity

New Zealand’s marine environment is both complex and varied, and supports a diverse range of sea life. A primary reason for this is our geographical location: the New Zealand archipelago lies on an active tectonic plate boundary, at the confluence of subtropical and subantarctic water masses and ocean current systems. This means that New Zealand’s marine environment includes a wide range of habitats and ecosystems, from rocky coastal reefs to deep trenches and seamounts (see figure 37).

Some of these marine habitats and ecosystems are especially important for biodiversity. For example, the Chatham Rise has our most ecologically productive offshore waters, and the Kaikoura Canyon provides a habitat for sperm whales close to the shore, which is a rare phenomenon anywhere in the world (Department of Conservation, 2015b).

Nearly one-quarter of the world’s seabird species breed in New Zealand, and almost 10 percent breed only in our marine environment (Taylor, 2000). Nearly half of the world’s whale, dolphin, and porpoise species are found in our waters, including threatened endemic species (found only in New Zealand) such as Māui’s dolphin (Gordon et al, 2010; Taylor, 2000).

Only a fraction of New Zealand’s vast marine environment has been explored, and there is still a lot that is not known about it. For example, we have only limited knowledge of the seafloor (the ‘benthic environment’). While we have identified more than 17,000 marine species in our waters, experts estimate that between 17,000 and 65,000 species are yet to be identified (Gordon et al, 2010; Department of Conservation, 2015a).

For more detail see Environmental indicators Te taiao AotearoaCoastal habitats, Marine environments, and Changes in the conservation status of indigenous species.

Our coastal and marine environment supports recreation and culture

Many New Zealanders and overseas visitors enjoy recreational activities such as swimming, fishing, diving, and boating in our coastal beaches and oceans. The marine environment is also important to Māori for customary and spiritual reasons. Fish and shellfish, seaweed, and other resources from the sea remain an important part of the Māori economy and lifestyle.

New Zealanders want to know that their coastal waters are healthy and safe for recreational and customary use. The main health risk from swimming, diving, surfing, and other activities involving immersion in water is from ingesting pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms). Pathogens generally enter waterways through contaminated animal or human faecal matter.

Regional councils monitor popular swimming sites to assess the level of risk for recreational activities such as swimming. However, some inconsistencies in monitoring methodologies mean the data are neither representative nor comparable across all sites, and so do not meet our data quality standards for inclusion in this report. We are working with councils to develop more consistent monitoring and reporting, at a national level, of the suitability of coastal waters for swimming. In the meantime, you can look for information about your local swimming spot on the Land, Air, Water Aotearoa website.