Commercial fish harvesting methods such as bottom trawling and purse seining will be banned to a depth of 100m around Cape Brett. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A ground-breaking Environment Court decision has created two new no-take fishing areas in Northland waters and banned the most damaging forms of commercial fishing from the seas around Cape Brett.
The court ruling means all
fishing, including recreational, will be barred from Maunganui Bay (Deep Water Cove) to Oke Bay, near Rāwhiti in the Bay of Islands, as well as the waters around Mimiwhangata, 50km north of Whangārei.
It also prohibits two commercial fishing methods — bottom trawling and purse seining — in a larger area around Rakaumangamanga (Cape Brett) to a depth of about 100m. The area starts just north of Maunganui Bay, extends around the Cape and ends just north of Elliott Bay.
News of the no-take zones, which total 52sq km, has taken many recreational fishers by surprise.
Efforts to restrict fishing, for example through the Marine Reserves Act, usually involve extensive public consultation but in this case the bans are the result of a long-running court case.
Details of the new rules, including when they will come into effect, won’t be known until the Environment Court releases its final decision some time after February 2023. Even then many details will still have to be worked through.
The ruling is ground-breaking in that it is the first time anyone has successfully used the Resource Management Act to ban specific commercial fishing practices.
The court case goes back to 2017 when the Northland Regional Council released a regional plan which didn’t include any fishing controls.
The plan was appealed by conservation groups Fish Forever and Forest & Bird with support from local hapū.
They presented evidence to the court showing a fishing-related decline in ecological values including widespread loss of kelp forest and kina barren expansion, caused by reduced populations, and sizes, of snapper and crayfish.
While the legal action was taken against the regional council, the council has since been persuaded by the evidence and now supports the fishing restrictions.
Newly elected council chairwoman Tui Shortland said the council also backed the new rules because they reflected the concerns of local hapū Ngāti Kuta ki Te Rāwhiti and Te Uri O Hikihiki.
“There is much to be done in partnership with local tangata whenua and communities around how the new rules will be effectively implemented, and we’re committed to having that kōrero and establishing those relationships,” she said.
The rule changes would have significant implications for the council because it had not previously been involved in regulating recreational or commercial fishing locations.
“This decision will come as a surprise for those used to fishing in these areas and we know many will feel affected by the changes. We are committed to providing clarity around what they mean for our community and will be working with tangata whenua and all stakeholders to make sure the new rules are well understood and communicated.”
The court ruling is being celebrated by Forest & Bird, Fish Forever and local hapū.
Forest & Bird Northland conservation manager Dean Baigent-Mercer said it meant life beneath the waves, in a few areas at least, could start recovering from the effects of fishing.
“The newly protected areas will leave a positive legacy of recovery at the exact time when resilience is needed most from a changing climate and ocean.”
Ngāti Kuta kaumātua Matu Clendon said overfishing of large koura (crayfish) and snapper had literally made the mauri (life force) of the moana disappear.
“We don’t want to pass this on to the next generation. We know recovery is possible when the fishing pressure is taken off. Our aim is to provide safety for the breeding grounds to recover, the seaweed forests and work-ups to come back, for the mauri o Tangaroa to return in these areas,” he said.
Hepi Haika, a kaumātua of Te Uri o Hikihiki, said the court ruling was the result of an intergenerational dream laid down by the late Houpeke Piripi, to give the moana a real break around Mimiwhangata and allow the area to return to its former glory.
Baigent-Mercer said overfishing of Northland’s east coast began in the 1960s and 70s. Commercial operations initially “hammered down” fish populations, which couldn’t recover due to pressure from recreational fishers in ever-increasing numbers and with more sophisticated boats and gear.
In particular, the loss of big snapper and crayfish caused an explosion in kina populations, which grazed kelp forests down to bare rock and left underwater deserts.
“These kina barrens along Northland’s coastline have led to generations of people thinking a depleted sea and almost empty reefs are normal,” he said.
Researcher Roger Grace’s 2007 research along the Mimiwhangata coast revealed fewer than two legal-sized crayfish per hectare, compared with 800 per hectare at Tāwharanui Marine Reserve.
The two no-take areas, or rāhui tapu, will include exceptions for kina harvesting and activities associated with research and tikanga such as customary fishing.
The groups behind the appeal used a precedent set last year in the Bay of Plenty by the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust, when the court ruled regional councils could protect biodiversity in the sea out to 12 nautical miles.