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Changes since the 1997 report

The 1997 report, The State of New Zealand’s Environment 1997, concluded that:

New Zealand’s environmental information needs considerable upgrading if the state of the nation’s environment is to be accurately described and trends detected. …

The main pressures on indigenous biodiversity today are insufficient habitat in lowland areas, declining quality of many of the remaining land and freshwater habitats, the impacts of pests and weeds and, for some marine species and ecosystems, human fishing activities. …

The main responses to biodiversity decline have focused on ecosystem and species recovery programmes on offshore islands and extensive pest control operations on the mainland, but the need for partial restoration of the representative indigenous lowland and coastal ecosystems and for wider protection of marine ecosystems has yet to be addressed. …

The status of more than half the commercially exploited fish stocks is unknown but, of the stocks whose status is known, about 10 percent are considered to be below the level of Maximum Sustainable Yield and measures have been set to rebuild these stocks. …

Pressures on marine life from fishing include direct harvesting pressure as well as indirect pressures from trawling and dumping of offal on nursery ecosystems (e.g. coral communities, seamounts, bryozoan mats), and bycatch of non-target species (e.g. 1,000 marine mammals, several hundred seabirds, and many non-target fish per year). …

The new Fisheries Act 1996 recognises that environmental sustainability requires more than just sustaining the yield from target stocks but also requires the maintenance of marine biodiversity and ecosystems. …

Protected marine areas can act as both reservoirs of biodiversity and nurseries for some commercial fisheries yet, apart from the Kermadec and Auckland Islands, protected marine areas are under-represented in both our coastal and our deep water ecosystems, e.g. seamounts. (Ministry for the Environment, 1997, chapter 10.)

Progress since 1997

Since 1997, considerable effort has been made to strengthen marine information systems and put in place more extensive monitoring to improve the management of New Zealand’s marine area. Government strategies, research funding, and management policies have collectively focused on improving our understanding of the marine environment, its ecosystems, and its biodiversity.

Limited knowledge of long-term impacts

In recent years, marine research in New Zealand has increased its emphasis on improving its understanding of the:

  • wider ecosystem effects of human activities on our marine area

  • distribution and structure of our marine ecosystems

  • interdependence between marine species and ecosystems.

Despite this shift, our knowledge of the long-term ecosystem impacts of human activities in the New Zealand marine environment remains somewhat limited. Bringing together land, freshwater, and marine research will be particularly important in studying the resilience of our inshore ecosystems to land-based pressures.

More about Māori indicators for marine protection

In 2004, Ngāti Konohi, the Department of Conservation, and the Ministry for the Environment worked together to establish a framework for marine protection for the rohe moana (coastal area) of Ngāti Konohi of Whangarā. The rohe extends from Waihau Bay in the north to Tatapouri Heads in the south, and includes Te Tapuwae o Rongokako Marine Reserve, established in 1999.

Identifying the indicators (tohu)

The project aimed to:

  • define a process to identify Māori marine indicators (tohu) that would measure the health of the rohe moana

  • pilot the implementation of tohu

  • test how marine reserves contribute to iwi conservation objectives.

The project involved members of Ngāti Konohi who regularly used the rohe moana to gather kaimoana (seafood). The project identified traditionally important locations and species and collected information on traditional catch techniques and customs relating to management of kaimoana. Using this information, tohu were developed by Ngāti Konohi to monitor changes in the health of their rohe moana and address problems using customary management practices.

Primary and secondary tohu

Ngāti Konohi established primary and secondary tohu.

Primary tohu were divided into species-focused and process-focused tohu. Species-focused tohu monitor the availability, accessibility, abundance, and quality of species of traditional importance. For example, tohu indicate whether kaimoana can be readily harvested to provide for customary needs.

Process-focused tohu monitor the condition and presence of processes that indicate a healthy marine environment. For example, seasonal observations of ‘bait fish’ feeding or predators (such as marine mammals or sea birds) were categorised as process-focused tohu.

Secondary tohu included:

  • a series of plots established at various locations in the rohe moana to quantify the size and location of key indicator species

  • data on water quality, shellfish health, and beach bathing standards from marine environmental monitoring undertaken by Gisborne District Council

  • a series of land-based tohu, which were defined to aid management of the rohe. These include the flowering seasons of the kōwhai, pōhutakawa, and tī kouka (cabbage tree) as indicators of ripeness of kina for harvesting.

The identification of marine environmental tohu has proven to be a catalyst for heightened interest in and awareness of marine protection in the area.

New tools to improve understanding

Since 1997, new marine databases and national coordination tools such as the National Aquatic Biodiversity Information System have become important aids to understanding our marine environments and their associated biodiversity.

New ecological classification systems have also helped us to better understand our marine environment. These classification systems include:

  • the Marine Environment Classification

  • the Marine Environment Classification optimised for demersal fish

  • the Demersal Fish Community Classification

  • the Coastal Biogeographic Regions Classification.

Marine monitoring programmes that have been implemented since 1997 include:

  • the non-indigenous marine species monitoring programme

  • regional monitoring of the quality of beach bathing water

  • regional monitoring of wastewater and stormwater discharges into the coastal marine area

  • estuarine and coastal monitoring of sedimentation, nutrients, and other pollutants

  • monitoring of Māori marine indicators (see box ‘More about Māori indicators for marine protection’)

  • the Ocean Survey 20/20 mapping initiative.

In addition, research funding was allocated in 2007 to gather more detailed information on commercial fish catches in coastal waters. The aim of this funding is to ensure that inshore fisheries are managed sustainably. The research aims to increase our understanding of interactions between target fish stocks, bycatch species, and fishing effects on the wider inshore environment, with a view to improved planning and management of inshore fisheries. The research is also expected to inform coastal planning decisions on marine protection and aquaculture development.


The protection of New Zealand’s marine environment will continue to require a focus on biosecurity. Increased marine-based trade and travel as well as climate change are expected to add to the existing pressures of pests, diseases, and pathogens. Controlling these threats is important for protecting our fisheries and Marine Protected Areas as well as for preserving wider coastal amenity values (Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, 2007).

State of our fisheries

The Fisheries Act 1996 has been in place for more than a decade. Of the 99 fish stocks for which sufficient information is available to assess stock status, 85 per cent have been fished sustainably and 15 per cent have been overfished and are now being rebuilt.

It is difficult, however, to compare the 15 per cent of stocks overfished in 2007 with the 10 per cent of stocks overfished in 1997. The number of species in the quota management system has increased from 42 species in 1997 to 96 species in 2007, and the number of assessed fish stocks has increased from 74 to 99 over the same period. Furthermore, methodologies for assessing stocks have improved. Even so, it is clear that pressures on our fisheries stocks remain and our fish stocks will continue to need careful management into the future.

The pressures identified for our fisheries in the 1997 report remain important environmental issues in fisheries management today: bycatch, habitat destruction, and indirect and wider ecosystem impacts. Initiatives to address these issues include:

  • the Strategy for Managing the Environmental Effects of Fishing

  • the National Plan of Action to Reduce the Incidental Catch of Sea Birds in New Zealand Fisheries

  • industry-initiated benthic protection areas.

See box ‘Government action on protecting the marine environment’ for more information on government initiatives to protect the marine environment.

However, more monitoring and research into the effects of fisheries, including seabed trawling, on the wider ecosystem is warranted, because we have significant gaps in our understanding of the impacts of human activity on the marine environment.

Marine protection

Since the 1997 report, monitoring and research have conclusively demonstrated the positive effect of marine protection on both the size and abundance of marine life and the recovery of ecosystems under pressure.

In 1997, almost 7,602 square kilometres of New Zealand waters were protected in marine reserves. This area has increased by about 5,162 square kilometres in the last decade. Thirty-one marine reserves now comprise 7 per cent of our territorial sea, a high proportion by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development standards. Nearly half of these have been established since 2000, and the area designated as marine reserves has nearly doubled in this time. However, 99 per cent of our protected area is in two offshore marine reserves, and some key habitats remain unprotected.

Progress on classifying the marine environment and developing and implementing a 10 per cent Marine Protected Area network throughout the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (targeted for 2010) has been slow. However, the Marine Protected Areas Policy and Implementation Plan is expected to increase momentum to expand the network to fully represent the range of New Zealand’s coastal and marine ecosystems and habitats (see box ‘Government action on protecting the marine environment’).

Other initiatives to protect important marine habitats from disturbance include:

  • proposed benthic protection areas (which will close 30 per cent of the EEZ to seabed trawling)

  • seamount closures (which will close 100,000 square kilometres to seabed trawling).

In addition, customary closures and restrictions are an integral part of fisheries management.

Recent years have also seen the emergence of innovative local initiatives for coastal management, such as the coastal management plan proposed by the Fiordland Guardians and supported by the Government.

Looking ahead

New Zealand’s marine environment will continue to face pressures from fishing activities. In the light of improved information over time about fish stocks and the broader effects of fishing on marine ecosystems, the challenges will be to ensure fisheries are utilised in a sustainable way and to allow the recovery of stocks that have been overfished in the past.

Land-based pressures on the inshore marine environment will continue to challenge the health of our marine environment. Discharges of pollution, stormwater, nutrients, and sediments to the sea from land development appear unlikely to ease, given our increasing population and shift towards more intensive land use.

Balancing the competing needs of the users of our marine area will continue to be important and may become increasingly difficult as our population increases and technology advances. The need for accurate information to help set priorities for future use and protection of our marine area will increase.

In the future, greater attention is likely to turn to the significant changes to our oceans and coasts that climate change is expected to bring, and how New Zealand will respond.