A Maori-led initiative supported by Forest & Bird to restore the Mimiwhangata coast to its former fish-filled glory is gaining traction ten years after it was first proposed.
Moana Ora - the way it was
“I started diving around 5 years old. My uncle Houpeke was the first to have diving goggles and flippers. Then of course everybody around here got them…… I went to Whangarei to learn scuba diving in 1957. It opened up a whole new world altogether. The first Spanish lobster I saw was out there. You’d always come across a school of huge snapper and kingfish. Now and then you’d run into a school of dolphins, and of course the old orca. I disappeared quickly when I saw them under the water. I come face to face with hammerheads out there“. In the late 1960s, Uncle Puke spotted a 50 pound packhorse crayfish. “I was just swimming over a channel and saw these huge horns sticking out of the seaweed. They were so huge my hands wouldn’t fit around them. I put my jute bag over the top of it and it flapped and swam up to the boat”
Kaumātua Puke Haika, 73
Lapped by tropical waters, Mimiwhangata lies between the Bay of Islands and Whangarei and reaches out towards the Poor Knights Islands.
It is home to around 70 fish species – from foxfish, tropical surgeon fish to combfish.
Once fishers pulled out crayfish the size of small children from its waters!
Fast-forward sixty years and now this area is undergoing the ocean equivalent of desertification.
It is filled with kina barrens because the fish that once preyed on these spiked bottom-dwellers – large snapper and crayfish - have vanished from these waters.
The initial wave of destruction came care of commercial fishing boats which de-fished the waters in the 1960s and 1970s.
In an effort to prevent a freefall in fish stocks a marine park was established in 1984.
Over a ten year roll out period, commercial cray-potting and fishing for snapper was banned and recreational fishers were given strict rules when it came to catching snapper and cray-potting from 1984.
The effects of this destruction can still be seen though. Below are some indicators of the state of the marine environment –
- The number of packhorse crayfish have plummeted so significantly that they’re no longer found in the marine park.
- Prior to the 1970s large snapper were frequently caught at Mimiwhangata. Now only small snapper can be found
- The area was once covered in thick kelp forests however these have been heavily grazed by the kina. Kina have boomed since the removal of their main predators.
- The common fish left are those that won’t take a hook – the weed-eaters.
Why does it need more protection?
Although commercial fishing has been banned in this area, the area has been stripped to within a breath of its life – and recreational fishers are still free to pick over the remains.
What's in a name?
The name Mimiwhangata means ‘the stench of urine’. This is because it was the battleground of a fight between the local iwi Ngapuhi and Ngatiwai. The slain victims started to decompose and as a result released the contents of their bladders.
To restore the area, tangata whenua and Forest & Bird are proposing a Rahui Tapu reserve flanked by customary fishing areas on either side.
Mimiwhangata has been studied and monitored since the 1970s, so the area would be an ideal scientific reserve – similar to Leigh Marine reserve – an area that attracts around 300,000 people a year.
As well as restoring fish populations, this would bring schools of tourists, scuba divers and snorkelers to Mimiwhangata’s shores.
Marine Protection by Rahui Tapu
All legal marine protection tools have thorns for tangata whenua/tangata moana.
Nationally, a major stumbling block is the current Marine Reserves Act 1971. For many, the Act isn’t acceptable because it means handing over management and governance to the Crown for traditional coastal areas.
Ngātiwai contend that they have been cut out of management decisions at the two famous marine reserves at Leigh and the Poor Knights which are within their rohe (tribal area), and they didn‘t want a repeat with Mimiwhangata.
Borne from this is a concept of marine protection called rāhui tapu that can satisfy both Māori and nature conservation criteria with the potential to be used further afield.
Forest & Bird supports this as a way of the future and with Ngātiwai leaders seeks to have rāhui tapu included as another form of marine protection in the long-delayed deliberations over the Marine Reserves Bill.
A rāhui outlines a boundary. The tapu is the restrictions that are to be observed within that boundary. A rāhui tapu at Mimiwhangata would be a no-take area for everyone and weaves together traditional Māori protective measures with complementary additions to the marine reserves law.
Key differences with the legal definition of a marine reserve is that a rāhui tapu would:
- put tangata whenua/tangata moana in a role of co-governance with the Crown and community trustees.
- have a 25-year generational review, allowing the next generation to decide what to do.
The current proposal has taken nearly a decade of formulation and has been thoroughly thought through, from a scientific, food security, economic development and mana moana perspective. Forest & Bird endorses this approach and asks everyone to support the concept and Te Uri o Hikihiki in efforts to amend the Marine Reserves Act so as to provide for the establishment of rāhui tapu.