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Forest & Bird and Fish Forever are thrilled that three areas of the Northland coast will be protected as a result of an Environment Court decision released in November.

Two areas – around Mimiwhangata peninsula and between Maunganui Bay/Deepwater Cove and Oke Bay in the Bay of Islands – will be acknowledged as rāhui tapu and fishing will be prohibited. The third area, around Rākaumangamanga/Cape Brett, will have a bottom trawling and purse seining ban.

A map of the areas is available from the Northland Regional Council here

“While the final details of the plan protections are still before the Court, it’s a cause for celebration,” says Dean Baigent-Mercer, Northland Conservation Manager for Forest & Bird, “Out of the huge Northland coastline, there will be some areas where life beneath the waves can recover from the impacts of fishing.”

“The newly protected areas will leave a positive legacy of recovery at the exact time when resilience is needed most from a changing climate and ocean.”

The final decision is expected in February 2023 and comes after Forest & Bird and Fish Forever worked with kaumātua of Ngāti Kuta and Te Uri o Hikihiki to appeal the Northland Regional Council’s Regional Plan for Northland, which did not include fishing controls.

The organisations and hapū used the precedents established in the Bay of Plenty by the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust’s case, which ruled that regional councils can protect significant native biodiversity in the sea out to 12 nautical miles.

Protection much needed after decades of overfishing

Overfishing of Northland’s east coast began in the 1960s and 70s. Commercial operations initially hammered down fish populations, which were unable to recover because of continued pressure from recreational fishers, who came in ever increasing numbers and with more sophisticated fishing boats and gear. Fish size, populations and diversity have withered.

In particular, harvest of large numbers of big snapper and crayfish has led to an explosion in kina populations, which graze kelp forests down to the rock, leaving underwater deserts.

“These kina barrens along Northland’s coastline have led to generations of people thinking a depleted sea and almost empty reefs are normal,” says Mr Baigent-Mercer.

The situation has been urgent for some time. Dr Roger Grace’s 2007 research along the Mimiwhangata coast, between Mōkau and Whananaki, revealed 1.74 legal-sized crayfish per hectare, compared with 800 legal-sized crayfish per hectare at Tāwharanui Marine Reserve.

About the new protected areas

Mimiwhangata is small peninsula between the Bay of Islands and Whāngārei that reaches towards the Poor Knights Islands. It’s surrounded by small islands, sandy beaches and rocky reefs that stretch out 4 km.

When life beneath the waves rebounds at Mimiwhangata, it is likely to be more diverse than around Goat Island near Leigh. The area is licked by subtropical currents that support species rarely found on the mainland coast, including foxfish, combfish and tropical surgeonfish.

Along with the bounce-back of crayfish and snapper, it is hoped rare species – such as ivory coral, red-lined bubble shell, callianassid shrimp, sharp-nosed puffer and sabretooth blenny – will become more common.

“The two rāhui tapu at Mimiwhangata and Rākaumangamanga will recover to become incredible places to snorkel or dive and see abundant fish life,” says Karen Field, spokesperson for Fish Forever.

“They will be two new areas with protection from fishing that people won’t need a boat to visit – of which there are only a handful across the country.

“That means many more people will be able to experience the wonder of flourishing marine life by simply snorkelling off the beach.

“Year-by-year we would expect to see the return of abundant parrotfish, black angelfish, red moki, koura, snapper, wrass, leatherjackets, red pigfish. And best of all they’ll just be hanging out living their lives unafraid of us being in the water with them.”

At the third new protected area, Rākaumangamanga/Cape Brett, there are great upwellings of nutrient-rich deep water into shallower coastal waters. This feeds a lively ecosystem of seabirds diving into ‘work ups’ of many species and sizes of fish. It has been an area targeted by purse-seine netting which encircles the mass of fish and birds and traps them to pull them onboard. This method, along with bottom trawling, will now be banned around Motukōkako Island and the end of the Rākaumangamanga/Cape Brett peninsula.

Images available of newly protected areas and species expected to now thrive are available on Dropbox. Photographers must be credited as per the file names.

Acknowledgement of years of effort and support

Forest & Bird and Fish Forever would like to thank all the mātauranga Māori and scientific experts, divers, economists, planners and lawyers who illustrated the problems and impacts of both recreational and commercial fishing in the Environment Court.

We acknowledge the many decades of marine biology research by the late Dr Roger Grace, Vince Kerr and Dr Vicky Froude beneath the waves and the foresight of Matua Houpeke Piripi of Ngātiwai who made a decree that formed the anchor stone for protection around Mimiwhangata and all the hapū and kaumatua who have worked to make this a reality.

We would also like to acknowledge the input of the late Jeroen Jongejans who presented evidence to the Court about the massive benefits to New Zealand tourism of having healthy undersea marine life for people to see when diving and snorkelling.

“The intricate knowledge of seasonal changes, fish breeding habitats, timing and changes kaumātua experienced through their lifetimes was invaluable and is a lesson to all,” says Mr Baigent-Mercer.

Press release and quotes from Northland hapū, Ngāti Kuta and Te Uri o Hikihiki, available here

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