The Hauraki Gulf Forum today released its 2014 state of the environment report.The three-yearly assessment of the Hauraki Gulf/ Tikapa Moana notes a significant – and in some cases widening – gap between current and desired states.
But it also documents some progress within the rural, urban and marine sectors to address environmental impacts.
Stocks of popular fish species are sustainably managed, but typically at the lowest acceptable target level under fisheries legislation. Snapper numbers are thought to be at 19 per cent of original biomass and legal-sized crayfish are managed at one fifth their levels in 1945.
The Forum had identified enhancement of fisheries with improved environmental outcomes as one of its areas for focus and action following its last assessment in 2011.
The 2014 report finds already high levels of nitrogen continuing to increase in the Gulf, mainly from the intensively farmed Hauraki Plains. It also notes long term studies linking elevated nutrient levels to seasonal sags in oxygen in the Firth of Thames water column.
Auckland’s Waitemata and Tamaki estuaries frequently exceed low-level sediment quality guidelines for heavy metals coming from urban roads and buildings.
The Forum had sought active management to minimise land-based pollutants and to keep them at levels that prevent ecological damage.
It also identified a network of regenerating marine areas as part of its recipe for successful management, but progress has been slow. Marine reserves remain at 0.3 per cent of the Gulf area. Reefs in older reserves showing marked differences in health and productivity to surrounding fished areas, but efforts to initiate new reserves, such as on the northern Waiheke coast, have been strongly contested.
Forum chairman John Tregidga said there are positive signs. “Many farmers are recognising the need to work within nutrient limits”, he said. “The fishing industry has moved to address wastage and is adapting methods to avoid seabird capture, while the Ports of Auckland has introduced a large vessel transit protocol to avoid collisions with resident Bryde’s whales.”
The report documents the pattern of intensive fishing throughout the Gulf, from recreational boats, long-lining and trawling. Scallop dredging has also expanded into previously unfished beds in the past three years.
Fierce competition between sectors and an emphasis on utilisation in the short term is stalling a rebuild of fish stocks to levels associated with better economic returns and environmental health.
Monitoring shows estuaries and harbours around the Gulf are becoming muddier, suggesting land use controls are lagging behind council obligations and community expectations.
Four new marine invasive species have been reported since the 2011 report and one of them, the Mediterranean fanworm, is potentially a serious pest. Four Bryde’s whales are known to have died from ship strike since 2011.
Significant numbers of black petrels and flesh-footed shearwaters are also dying, predominantly from drowning on commercial long lines. In both cases, these death rates appear to be more than their populations can sustain.
The report puts a measure over new central and local government policy and plans. It suggests there are technical and political challenges to meeting the requirements of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act.
The report notes aquaculture could expand significantly in the Gulf, with consequences for additional nitrogen loads, if designated fish farms are developed. Current applications for shellfish farming, which come off hold at the end of this year, would, if consented, double the area in production and alter the natural character of some parts of the Gulf.
The report documents growing contribution by tangata whenua to governance of the Hauraki Gulf/ Tikapa Moana, Te Moananui a Toi, through partnership arrangements spawned through treaty settlement processes, iwi plans and ownership interests.
The Hauraki Gulf Forum advocated for the development of a marine spatial plan for the Gulf after its 2011 assessment. The resulting Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari process is now at a critical halfway stage.
“This 2014 state of the environment assessment shows we are at a crossroads,” said Forum chairman John Tregidga. “Ongoing engagement and commitments from all parties are needed if we are to protect and enhance the special qualities of the Hauraki Gulf.”
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