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1 Introduction

Conservation and environmental management agencies in New Zealand, along with similar agencies in other countries, are increasingly adopting an ecosystem-based approach to marine management. Effective implementation of such an approach requires a range of tools, including classifications that identify geographic areas having similar ecosystem character (e.g. Bailey 1985; Longhurst 1998). These provide spatial frameworks for structured and systematic management (Margules and Pressey 2000) by subdividing the geographic domain into units having similar biological and/or environmental character (Bailey 1995; McMahon et al. 2001; Omernik 1995).

Spatial frameworks are mapped ecological classifications that have the same purpose as any other classification, i.e. "to obtain classes such that any member of a class can be treated as if it possessed certain properties" (Jones 1970). Subdivision of the geographic domain into labelled units that share similar ecological characteristics establishes a common language for description that can then be used as an inventory for storage and retrieval of information. Stakeholders in the development of the classification of New Zealand's marine environments specifically intended that it would provide a tool for analysis and management of conservation and resource management issues. As such, the Marine Environment Classification would be utilised in a variety of applications including:

  • mapping management units that are relatively homogenous with respect to certain ecosystem properties rather than administrative boundaries
  • transferring knowledge of processes and values to other areas on the basis of similarity
  • defining management units that will be subject to similar objectives, policies and methods
  • predicting the potential impacts of events and resource uses based on ecosystem susceptibility (e.g. the effects of marine invaders on certain habitat types and species)
  • identifying priorities for protection (e.g. which parts of the environment should be included in marine protected areas)
  • identifying areas within which certain activities should be closely managed or avoided (e.g. in what kinds of areas should trawling be prohibited)
  • structuring monitoring programmes to ensure representativeness of all environment types, and providing a context for reporting state of the environment information
  • identifying priorities for further research (e.g. to identify or confirm the whereabouts of certain habitat types about which baseline information is required).

New Zealand's conservation and environmental agencies commissioned the development of environmental classifications covering both New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone, and the Hauraki Gulf region, collectively known as the Marine Environment Classification. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) was the lead agency responsible for coordinating the development of the classification. Development of the Marine Environment Classification occurred in six specific development phases over a four year period from 2000 to 2004. The details of each of these development phases have been fully documented in a number of reports that are listed in the references section of this report. The purpose of this report is to summarise those development phases in sufficient detail to provide future users of the Marine Environment Classification with a single information source. This report overviews the development process, discusses the results of testing the classification and describes the physical and biological characteristics of classes that are defined by the classifications.