Marine Reserves - FAQ

What is a marine reserve?

When was the first marine reserve in New Zealand established?A marine reserve is an area of ocean and shore that is protected. Inside it, people cannot take living things, or disturb the habitat of marine animals, or non-living marine resources. Dredging, dumping or discharging any matter or building structures is also prohibited.

New Zealand’s first marine reserve (Cape Rodney – Okakari Point or ‘Leigh’ Marine Reserve) was established in 1977 and was one of the world’s first no-take marine reserves.

It attracts over 350,000 snorkellers, divers, sightseers and marine scientists each year. Although local fishers were sceptical at first, they were soon won over. Cray fishers have benefited from the bounteous crayfish population within the reserve and often lay traps around the fringes to catch crayfish spilling out of the reserve.

How many marine reserves are there in New Zealand?

There are now 34 no-take marine reserves established in New Zealand waters as of August 2011.  Collectively, these reserves protect just 0.3% of our total marine environment or just 7% of New Zealand’s coastal waters, known as our territorial sea. Our two largest marine reserves are located on offshore islands (Auckland and Kermadac Islands) and these two reserves account for 97% of our protected sea-area. In contrast, our coastal mainland marine reserves are very small. Our offshore deep water marine environment is totally unprotected with no marine reserves at all.

What can you do in a marine reserve?

You can do anything that does not harm the habitats and sea life, such as swimming, boating, walking on the beach, snorkelling, diving, kayaking and exploring rock pools. 

Why do we need marine reserves?

An estimated 80% of New Zealand's biodiversity is found in our seas. Our marine area is 15 times as big as our land area, and New Zealand manages the fourth-largest fishing zone in the world.

This area - known as our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) - is ~ 4.0 million square kilometres large.  Yet less than 0.3% of our waters are currently protected by marine reserves - the rest remains vulnerable to degradation caused by over-fishing, mining, pollution and marine farming.

Just as we have national parks on land (which cover 30% of New Zealand’s land mass), we need to protect areas of the sea environment in marine reserves.

By protecting these marine environments against human threats, we can measure the effect human activities have on our marine life outside protected areas.

A representative range of marine habitats, including fish spawning areas, seamounts, deep sea habitats and coastal wildlife areas need to be protected, just as a variety of ecosystems are protected in national parks on land.

Why is our marine biodiversity at risk?

Over-fishing by commercial fisheries is leading to dramatic declines in some fish stocks, for example, New Zealand orange roughy, snapper and hoki stocks are now just a fraction of their former levels. Coral reefs, sponge gardens and seamounts (underwater islands) are destroyed by nets that are dragged along the seafloor, crushing everything in their path. Recreational fishing can also affect marine biodiversity, particularly if catch limits are not observed, or recreational fishers use fishing methods which threaten marine life, such as set nets, which indiscriminately catch everything that swims into them, including dolphins and penguins. Exploration and mining for minerals, coastal development, marine farming and pollution also have an impact on marine life.

How much sea should be protected?

The Government signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and is therefore committed to maintaining and preserving the natural heritage on land and in our sea. The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy has an aim that marine habitats and ecosystems will be maintained in a healthy functioning state, and degraded areas will be allowed to recover. The Government made a commitment to have “10% of NZ’s marine environment with some form of protection by 2010”.

Unfortunately, the Government said it planned on using a range of management tools, known as marine protected areas (MPAs), these include marine reserves, fisheries tools and other tools under the Resource Management Act. We are a very long way from reaching the Government's target of protecting 10% of our marine waters.

Internationally, scientists say that at at least 20% of marine areas should be protected as marine reserves. To prevent the collapse of heavily fished species, scientists recommend that 50% of their habitat must be protected.  New Zealand currently protects less than 1% ( 0.3%) of its waters through marine reserves (the most effective marine protection tool) – we need MORE protection. Forest & Bird has a goal of protecting 30% of our marine environment.

How do marine reserves affect fishing?

Some fishers oppose marine reserves because they believe protected areas mean fewer fish for them to catch. But the opposite is true: marine reserves provide areas where fish populations can spawn and expand in number and size. This abundance of marine life spills over into surrounding areas helping to replenish stocks. In marine reserves fish are able to grow to a larger size, which is beneficial to fish stocks as larger fish produce significantly more offspring.  Monitoring of marine reserves has found increases in numbers and size of species including blue cod, snapper, crayfish and paua.  Almost all of New Zealand's EEZ is available for exploitation at the moment. If Forest & Bird's marine reserve targets are reached, 80% of the seas around New Zealand would still be open to fishing.

Why can’t we allow fishing in marine reserves?

If marine reserves are to provide effective protection of marine biodiversity and allow people to observe the recovery of the marine environment to its natural state, it is crucial that they are ‘no take’ zones.  Taking fish from a marine reserve would alter the natural predator-prey balance of the ecosystem. Just as no logging is allowed in national parks, there must be no fishing in marine reserves. Fishing in reserves would severely undermine benefits to conservation, biodiversity, science and the public's enjoyment of a unique marine environment.

Can we still use other marine management tools?

Areas of customary importance to Maori can be managed (under the Fisheries Act) by tangata whenua as mataitai reserves or taiapure, where the taking of fish, shellfish and seaweed may be banned or restricted. Forest & Bird supports their establishment as one of a range of ways, complementary to marine reserves, in which over-fishing can be controlled.

Why does Forest & Bird support a network of marine reserves?

New Zealand’s marine environment is incredibly unique. It extends from sub tropical to sub Antarctic waters, so the creatures that swim through our waters are incredibly varied. It is one of the only countries where you can see an incredible array of cold-water and warm water species such as turtles & sea-snakes in the north, and penguins in the south. More than 80% of our native species live in our sea. Our underwater landscape is equally as unique as our terrestrial one. Because NZ lies on active plate boundary, it is dotted with  a multitude of undersea volcanoes. We’ve only just discovered that this system of vents and volcanoes have their very own ecosystem. A wealth of previously undiscovered creatures thrive in these conditions.   Establishing a network of marine reserves ensures the long-term health of our oceans and the sea-creatures that call them home. It is a way of investing in our future.

Who decides where they go?

Marine reserves are established under the Marine Reserves Act 1971 by the Minister of Conservation, if the Ministers of Fisheries and Transport agree. Applications for marine reserves can be made by anyone or they are developed through formal Marine Protected Area Planning Forums. By law, the public must be consulted on all applications for marine reserves. 

Why can’t people fish in them?

Just as in our national parks we cannot take native wildlife or chop down native vegetation, the same level of protection applies in marine reserves. In being no-take, we allow marine habitats to recover to a natural state, which in turn supports a wider variety and abundance of sea life.

How are marine reserves regulations enforced?

The Department of Conservation monitors and enforces marine reserve regulations. Since marine reserves benefit us all, it is up to everyone to ensure we stick by the rules and encourage others to do the same. Every so often Sometimes the Ministry of Fisheries becomes involves if they are trying to catch known poachers in an area. If you see anyone doing anything they shouldn’t inside a marine reserve give the local DOC office a call, and if you can take a photograph.

Have the marine reserves we’ve got done any good?

Every marine reserve is different and the response of habitats and sea life to protection varies. Huge benefits have been recorded in the marine reserves we have. The number and size of fish and crayfish has increased inside some marine reserves. Others attract booming local tourism economies and others have united communities to manage and protect marine habitats and species in their area.

What about the fisheries Quota Management System?

The Quota Management System (QMS) is a fisheries tool that allocates a quantity of resources that can be taken from the sea. In theory it should ensure protection of our habitats and marine life, but in practice it does not. Damaging fishing methods and harvesting of breeding fish are still allowed and we don’t have enough information to know whether or not most fish stocks are being sustainably fished. We need areas that protect habitats and their marine life, allow recovery and provide breeding stocks.

What about other marine protection tools?

Forest & Bird supports a range of measures to protect the marine environment, including rahui, mataitai and marine mammal sanctuaries. However, marine reserves are one of the best ways of providing insurance for our future marine environment because they protect all marine life, from the sea floor to the surface of the ocean.

Why do we need more marine reserves?

It may seem that 34 marine reserves is a lot but they make up just 0.3% of our marine environment. Compare that with over 30% of our land area in reserves. Internationally scientists recommend 20-50% of our marine areas should be protected. Forest & Bird wants to see 30% by 2020.

How big should they be?

The bigger a marine reserve, the more habitats and species will be protected. We need some reserves that are big and some that are not so big, some in remote areas and some closer to home.

What about fishing?

Forest & Bird supports sustainable fishing. The recovery of breeding stocks inside marine reserves benefits fishers because adult fish ‘spill over’ and move outside the reserve. Fish eggs produced inside marine reserves also spread outside the reserve, developing the fishery stock. Protection of up to 30% of our marine areas in reserves would still leave at least 70% available for sustainable fishing, mineral mining and exploration and other activities.

What about other threats?

Marine reserves cannot protect all of our marine habitats and sea life from all threats. External threats such as pollution and sedimentation, for example, need to be addressed through better management on land. But establishing a network of marine reserves means our seas are likely to be more resilient to some of the bigger threats faced by our seas.

How do I get a marine reserve where I live?

Start by talking to people in your community who may like the idea. Talk to local schools and recreational groups, tangata whenua and community groups. Get in touch with your local Forest & Bird branch and tell them about your ideas – we can help! Once you are ready, you can make a formal application to the Minister of Conservation. The application is handled by the Department of Conservation and includes wide public consultation.

Where can I find out about local marine reserves/or proposed marine reserves in my area?

If you want to find out about local marine reserves, or proposed marine reserves in your area, visit the Department of Conservation’s web pages.