Written by Vicky Holder
The Hauraki Gulf – our playground and backdrop to our beautiful city is under an increasing environmental threat, according to the latest report from the Hauraki Gulf Forum
Auckland’s backyard, the Hauraki Gulf – with its beaches, parks, islands, reefs, blue waters, fish, plants and animals – has been loved and enjoyed by generations of Aucklanders and visitors from further afield. But there is another side to the story, and that is the environmental decline and degradation of this very special place, often from economic development and population growth, and the initiatives undertaken to rescue and protect it.
In 2000, the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park – Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana Te Moananui-ā-Toi – New Zealand’s only marine park, was set up. It covers the Hauraki Gulf, Waitemata Harbour, Firth of Thames and the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, and consists of public land – reserves and conservation areas administered by DOC – the foreshore, seabed and sea.
It was established through an innovative piece of legislation, The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act, to protect the natural and historic features of the Hauraki Gulf – Tīkapa Moana. These waters and islands are of national and international importance for their quality and for the wildlife and plants not found anywhere else in the world.
The temperate waters of the marine park brim with phytoplanktons, a massive food source for small fish that are then eaten by larger fish like Bryde’s whales, and Tīkapa Moana is one of the few places in the world with a resident population of these mammals. It is also home to 25 species of whale and dolphin, and is a global seabird hotspot with 26 species resting and nesting in the area. Twenty percent of the world’s seabird species visit each year and there are five species that only breed here.These birds love the shellfish beds, where they rummage for food, and the 45 predator-free islands in the gulf provide sanctuary for some of our most endangered wildlife including kokako, kiwi and tuatara.
Tīkapa Moana is recognised as a precious taonga (treasure), highly valued by many for cultural, environmental, social, recreational and economic reasons.The protection offered by the marine reserves means they are like wet libraries, with many more fish and birds found within their boundaries than outside. They provide a glimpse of what the gulf would have been like before people started fishing it out.
Sadly, Tīkapa Moana faces serious issues… which is why the same Act that allowed for the establishment of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park set up the Hauraki Gulf Forum to integrate the management of the park through cooperation and better communication for the enjoyment of everyone.
Every three years, the forum produces a State of the Gulf – State of the Environment Report, critical for setting management objectives and measuring whether they have been achieved.
Last month, the forum produced the first 20-year snapshot of what has been achieved. As we celebrate this milestone, it is also time to reflect on the impact humans have had on this ecosystem and how much more is to be done.
The park is suffering from the decimation of shellfish beds, decreasing fish stocks, a seabed littered with plastics, sediment issues and increased pressure from development and tourism.
At the most recent Auckland Conversations, Our Gift to the Gulf, Clark Gayford, producer of popular Fish of the Day series, recalled conversations with commercial fishermen who talked about how good it used to be.
“Meola Reef was covered in crayfish. Now we think of it as an area where we walk our dogs and pick up after them,” he says.
“We talk about New Zealand as the land of the long white cloud. It was once the land of oysters. We had the most magnificent oyster beds in the harbour. We used to harvest them here and send them down to the deep south. They were considered to have a much finer flavour than the oysters they found down in Bluff.
“When you start piecing together those stories you start to think – what was it like when we had mussel beds as far as the eye could see that used to turn over the water so regularly that it ran clear? What was it like before the pier trawlers nearly wiped the snapper out in the 1970s or when they used to have great boil ups of pilchards before they all caught herpes in the 1990s from Australia, when great flocks of seabirds used to transfer the protein from the sea back into the hills which allowed rare grasses and flaxes that required bird droppings and things to thrive?”
He says what we have in Auckland is incredible and “we are in the bubbling existence of where all marine life concentrates in New Zealand”.
We owe it to future generations to look after it.
Moana Tamaariki-Pohe, a member of the forum, shared the report’s good news.
“Slower ship speeds have helped prevent ship strikes to the Bryde whale.”
Pest eradication and native regeneration efforts have been spectacularly successful. There are now 15 more islands than in 2000 which are free of introduced predators, and birds are coming back of their own accord.
“Many more people are taking an active role in helping restore and protect the gulf, taking important steps like riparian planning, eliminating plastic and joining beach clean-ups.”
Much more is known about our unique park environment, thanks in part to these reports, she says.
Then, the bad news.
“Environmental degradation continues on a daily basis. Crayfish are now hard to find in heavily fished areas of the gulf. Sediment, nutrients, chemicals and plastics continue to wash into our water. Though efforts to improve the water quality are gathering pace, both seabirds and shorebirds have seen sharp rises in the number of species classified as threatened.
“Cockle numbers have declined in every area where gathering is allowed all year round. The number of marine pests has more than doubled with the arrival of invasive species like the Mediterranean fan worm.
“Kina beds are replacing once lush kelp forests and urban sprawl has expanded, driven by higher-than-expected population growth, meaning wild places are harder to find.”
Fish stocks overall remain low although some such as tiger ray, snapper and terakihi are building.
We have had 10 mass mortalities of fish and shellfish in the past 10 years, and toxic bloom is becoming more common. Changing climate and rising sea temperatures will make this more likely in the future.
Over the past two summers the water has been too warm for a lot of the plankton, which have moved to deeper waters further out. Whales, dolphins and seabirds also have to go further for their food source, putting them under huge stress.
A recent study of little blue penguins, which live on the edge at the best of times, shows they are visual hunters and can’t see their prey because of the sediment run-off after big rains. So they head further out, too, and because of poor vision can’t make it back home. If they do, they’re in no condition to lay eggs or feed their young, and they die.
After six such reports, the question is what we can do about it.
In 2017, the former government set up Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan to work out how to secure a productive and sustainable future for the Tīkapa Moana by taking a fresh look at its management and developing a roadmap for the future. As a result, a ministerial advisory committee was established last year with representatives from iwi and stakeholders, and support from the Department of Conservation and Fisheries New Zealand to develop recommendations about how to respond.
There’s a lot of talk, but Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage is looking forward to seeing the recommendations.
“Why is it in the marine space that we have less than half a percent of the area protected in marine reserves? Why is it that in the marine space there is so much argument about people’s interests and rights, and less about responsibilities?
“We have to get beyond asserting our rights to thinking about our responsibilities for the domain of Tangaroa, because we all share an interest in having a healthy gulf with abundant fisheries and marine life. It means putting aside our assertion of rights. We’d really like to see some ambitious vision, with the fishing industry offering to stop bottom trawling and other bottom-damaging methods – to take that step to inspire other action.”
She adds that land developers have a responsibility, also, to stop sediment running off the land.
The State of the Gulf Report sets out the challenge to which we all need to respond to help the gulf thrive.
However, one example Sage was inspired by was a little community north of Thames that said, ‘we need a rahui on the take of mussels, cockles, pipi that disappear over the summer, with the influx of visitors to the Coromandel.’ The local community has ensured the rahui has been implemented and they have enforced it.
“It was a really successful initiative that shows, when we do things quickly and we experiment, we can achieve change on a smaller scale, and that can achieve change elsewhere.”
Many of the changes to the gulf are irreversible. That’s tragic. If we are to decide the future, says councillor Pippa Coom, co-chair of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Forum, we have to act quickly.
“One of the key messages of the report is that we put too much weight on development and pollution. Now is the time to focus on the environment and its health.”So what can we do to help restore the health of the gulf?