An orca off the east coast of New Zealand. Photo: Getty

NZ has to stop telling whoppers about our care for the ocean

We’ve been telling the world our level of marine protection is world-leading when in fact, it’s tiny – about time we owned up, writes Livia Esterhazy of WWF

In New Zealand, our Exclusive Economic Zone is enormous. Fifteen times the size of our country’s land mass, our EEZ is the fourth largest in the world.

While many of us understand the importance of nature reserves on land, we don’t often think about the same for our oceans. But science tell us that intact marine ecosystems – the places that humanity has not messed with – are vital for the health of our oceans. That’s one of the many reasons scientists want an established network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

MPAs help build the resilience of the ocean as it is negatively impacted by climate change, pollution and fishing. Large, fully protected MPAs can act as a genetic bank, safeguarding against degradation and transferring species and genetic diversity back into areas and ecosystems where it has been lost.

MPAs won’t solve all the problems facing the ocean but they are a vital component of good ocean management. That’s why scientists are urging governments to set aside 30% of the ocean as an established network of MPAs, leaving 70% of it open for industrial use.

While to most of us this sounds like basic good sense, creating a representative network of MPAs has still not happened in our EEZ. Attempts to make scientifically based progress for the health of our oceans has usually foundered on the rocks of opposition, mainly from fishing industry lobbyists.

In 2007, the fishing industry came up with a proposal to restrict, through fisheries regulation, seabed-trawling and dredging in a range of areas they called Benthic Protection Areas (BPAs). BPAs were chosen based on where the fishing industry had no intention of seabed trawling, mainly as areas that are too deep or too remote to fish. Some of them protect important seafloor habitats but most of them don’t.

New Zealand governments have been reporting BPAs as MPAs ever since. They’re not. BPAs don’t meet the international standards for an MPA in three ways. First: they permit deep-sea mining and oil and/or gas extraction of the seabed. Second: they are vertically zoned, which means the water column above the seabed can be fished. Third – and critically: BPAs were never set aside for marine protection based on any scientific analysis that concluded these are important areas to protect for the overall health of our oceans. Most BPAs are simply the areas where no one goes to fish.

Soon, governments around the world are required to report to the UN on the level of marine protection within their EEZ. Here’s the problem.

If we are honest, we’ll have to admit that only 0.5% of our marine environment currently meets the international standard of an MPA. This will make it clear that previous governments have been misreporting. This won’t do much for the “clean and green” image we like to project.

We recognise that one option for the government would be to increase the level of protection for the BPAs to make them compliant with the definition of an MPA. That would be job done, right? Problem solved.

No. Why? Because most of the BPAs are not in the right places. Remember that BPAs were set aside by the fishing industry as places they don’t want to fish, not by scientists who concluded these are the most important part of our marine environment to protect.

So if we strengthen protection for BPAs, we will not be protecting the places that matter most. It’s a bit like putting a cricket box on so it protects your elbow rather than your groin – sure, you’re protecting something, but it’s not the most important bit.

We must protect the places that matter most. And if that means having to stand up on the world stage and admit that previous governments have misreported, then we must be brave and do that. If we want to project a “clean and green” image to the world, we must ensure it’s backed by science.

In my career managing brands and running advertising agencies, I’ve seen many organisations make mistakes. Sometimes these create opportunities. The only way to approach these situations is transparently and truthfully. But standing up and admitting a mistake, learning from it and doing better in the future is what helps organisations grow. Enhanced trust and credibility comes from acknowledging mistakes and – importantly – in putting things right.

This weekend, we wrote an open letter to our prime minister asking her to report honestly to the UN. We don’t want our country to continue the previous government’s whopper that told the world our level of marine protection was world-leading when in fact, it’s tiny.

And we shouldn’t fudge the numbers by giving BPAs more protection when science tells us these are not the places that are most important for the health of our oceans. So we asked her to listen before she makes up her mind on our marine protection: to scientists, NGOs, mana whenua, local communities and all of us with a passion for our ocean – and we’re asking those who support that position to add your name here. We think it’s important to show our government that we will support them to do the right thing. Together, it’s possible to make this right and to claim a place for our nation as world leaders in ocean protection.

Livia Esterhazy is the CEO of WWF-New Zealand


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