Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary to protect unique marine habitat

By Tracy Brighten

New Zealand initiative to protect a region of unique fauna diversity shows world leadership in sustainable marine environment management

white-capped albatross

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced the creation of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary that will protect a vast area of pristine ocean habitat covering 620,000 km² within New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

One of the most geologically diverse ocean habitats, the Kermadec region contains the world’s second deepest ocean trench, an underwater mountain range, and a series of volcanoes, which form the longest underwater volcanic arc on earth.

“It is home to six million seabirds of 39 different species, over 150 species of fish, 35 species of whales and dolphins, three species of sea turtles – all endangered –and many other marine species like corals, shellfish and crabs unique to this area,” said Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith in a media release.

Located in the South Pacific about 1000 km northeast of New Zealand, five islands and a number of smaller islets make up a chain stretching 250 km.

A key theme of the UN meeting is sustainable development and the new sanctuary will create a fully protected zone that prevents all fishing and mining in the area. Existing protected areas of 12 nautical miles off the coastline of each island will be extended to the 200 nautical mile limit of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

“The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will be one of the world’s largest and most significant fully-protected areas, preserving important habitats for seabirds, whales and dolphins, endangered marine turtles and thousands of species of fish and other marine life,” Key said in a media release.

Pew Charitable Trusts, WWF New Zealand and NZ Forest & Bird celebrated together on hearing the news, having long campaigned for the Kermadec region to become a protected area.

“This is a great outcome for marine conservation,” announced Forest & Bird.

“This ocean sanctuary is a major achievement and is testament to many years of hard work by thousands of New Zealanders,“ said Chris Howe, Chief Executive of WWF New Zealand.

“We are just beginning to understand the abundance of life there, but we know that creating this marine sanctuary will safeguard rare habitats and species critical for healthy ecosystems throughout the South Pacific,” said Bronwen Golder, Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy campaign manager in New Zealand.

Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy campaign works with local communities, governments and scientists to create the world’s first generation of marine reserves.

The Environmental Defence Society, a New Zealand non-profit environmental organisation, was also delighted by the government announcement.

“The establishment of the new oceans sanctuary represents a major achievement,” said EDS Policy Director Dr Raewyn Peart in a media release, but she has concerns about its implementation with existing ad-hoc legislation.

“What the government has yet to resolve is the reform of our oceans legislation to enable marine protected areas to be established throughout New Zealand’s ocean realm.”

Peart says a new Marine Protected Areas Act, promised by the National party at the last election, could provide greater certainty for petroleum and mineral industries, as well as for environmental protection.

Smith confirmed a new framework for marine protection is planned later this year, with legislation next year. The announcement of the Kermadec Sanctuary was timed ahead of New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals’ decision on their seabed prospecting application in the area.

“This new sanctuary is part of the National-led Government’s ‘Bluegreen’ approach of balancing environmental protection with economic development. New Zealand needs to use its vast ocean resources for jobs and exports with industries like fishing, aquaculture, minerals and energy, but we also need to set aside special areas where nature comes first and marine life is fully protected,” says Smith.

While the Kermadec region protection is a landmark decision in the global effort to increase ocean protection from the current two per cent, there is perhaps a question about how much ‘Bluegreen’ balancing was needed.

The National Business Review (NBR) report that a cabinet paper signed off by the environment minister estimated that the annual value of fisheries in the region represents a fraction of New Zealand’s annual fishing exports, which “reinforces that although the area is 15% of New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone, there is currently very little viable commercial fishing.”

A more testing demonstration of this ‘Bluegreen’ approach would be to fully protect the habitat of New Zealand’s native Maui and Hector’s dolphins from commercial and recreational gillnet fishing by extending the gillnet ban out to the 100m depth contour. Although this action would not have such an impact on the world stage, it would protect the critically endangered Maui dolphin that faces extinction with a population of fewer than 50 dolphins.

“New Zealanders value our coasts and oceans, which are an important part of our culture, economy and environment and we are committed to managing them sustainably,” says Prime Minister John Key.

On this basis, there should be no difficulty in building on the excellent Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary initiative by fully protecting the habitat of Maui and Hector’s dolphins.

Image credit: White-capped mollymawk albatross by Ben on Flickr