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Many recreational anglers see the increasing allocation of the coastline to marine reserves as the thin end of a wedge which could polarise fishing and conservation interests.
The establishment of the Poor Knights islands as a full marine reserve has devastated the Tutukaka recreational fishing community, and it will affect more than just the charter boat operators. The Minister of Conservation, Nick smith, has decided that all fishing in the Poor Knights reserve will cease over a 12-month period. The decision follows two years of court battles which cost the Whangarei Deepsea Anglers' Club more than $90,000. The club has no more resources to continue the fight.
Fishing in the reserve had been restricted to lure fishing or floating baits, and charter operators argued that those restrictions protected the resident species and targeted species which moved in and out of the reserve. And they were not impressed with the tactics employed by conservationists who visited schools in the area and obtained signatures on petitions from schoolchildren who would know little of the issues involved.
The islands have long been regarded as one of the best dive locations in the country, and the question must be asked: if the unique quality of the marine life found there has survived the limited fishing pressure over many years, why is it necessary to change it? It appears that emotional rather than logical scientific issues have prevailed. The minister has banned all fishing around the southern island of the Poor Knights from October 1. The ban will extend to the northern island a year later.
For generations Tutukaka has been one of the most popular bases in the country for both gamefishing and regular sportfishing, and the Poor Knights group directly off-shore was the cornerstone of fishing that section of coastline. The islands offer the only protection from weather within reasonable range of the base, and their loss will be felt not only by the charter operators but by hundreds of private boats which fish the area. Other services in the community such as motels, shops and restaurants cater to the many visitors.
The Hen and Chicken Islands offer first-class light-tackle sport fishing but the distance to travel from Tutukaka is twice as far as the Poor Knights, and in bad weather the dangers escalate. The question of enforcing the fishing ban inside the reserve will be interesting, for the charter fleet was mainly responsible for enforcing the previous restrictions, and the incentive to continue this service has been effectively removed. The value of creating marine reserves is not questioned by recreational anglers but all uses of marine resources must be balanced. A blind adherence to preservation principles can only alienate one of the largest sections of the community. Close to a million New Zealanders like to go fishing, and if conservationist planners have designs on some of the most popular islands like the Hen and Chickens - as some frustrated charter skippers suggest - then there is cause for real concern.
The minister also announced the formation of a conservation subcommittee to administer Northland marine reserves, including the Poor Knights, with representatives from various factions including fishing, diving and conservation groups. Apparently this committee will also influence planning for future marine reserves. A report that present policy aims to set aside 10 percent of the country's coastline for reserves within five years is another reason for concern for sportfishers.
The Poor Knights battle proved too big for a local organisation like the Deepsea Anglers' Club. These issues need to be handled at national level, with organisations such as the New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council and Recreational Fishing council representing the interest of the million anglers who will be the losers if reserves are allowed to flourish unchecked.
My own observations have not been in favour of the fishermen. Although they do stay out of the very small areas that excluded them, they have nonetheless unwittingly been fishing the fish from those protected areas. Fish don't know where the boundaries are. They move about and once a territory has become available (outside the protected area) because its previous owner was caught, a fish from somewhere else (inside the protected area) will move in. Fishing on the boundaries of a reserve is thus much more damaging than originally thought. The fishermen reason that by using floating baits, they will catch mainly transitory fish such as Snapper. But the reality is that they use heavy swivels to better sink their bait. They also happily use jigs that sink straight to the bottom. (Jigs are metal effigies of fish with a hook attached, which are whipped up an down to mimic the erratic movement of a wounded fish). Anglers also appear to be confused as to what constitutes 'bait fish'. The original idea of allowing fishing with floating lines is that 'bait fish' such as the 'pelagic' Trevally, Kahawai, Kingfish, Koheru and Jack Mackerel were migrant fish species which could be taken without harm to the resident fish of the reserve. It has subsequently been observed, however, that these species are more resident than previously thought. Once removed, they appear to come back only very slowly. for instance, after the surface-foaming schools of Trevally had been mopped up by commercial purse-seiners in around 1980, they have never returned. The same is true for kahawai, Koheru, Jack Mackerel and Kingfish.
In making his decision, the Minister had to take account of the four parties involved: the fishermen, the divers, the environment and our children. Our present generation must take responsibility for the dire state our fisheries are in. All too lightly do we assume that we have the RIGHT to do as we please, even to the detriment of our own children. By involving our children in the process, we have acknowledged their claim to the goodness of our country. If we are to reserve a place for them, it has to be the best place we can set aside. The Poor Knights is such a place.
Has the Poor Knights really survived the fishing pressures of the past? My observations do not bear this out. Crayfish (Spiny Lobster and Packhorse) have never returned, as mentioned above, the teaming schools of pelagic fish have stayed away and even reef fish has been depleted. It must be mentioned here that a fish-count study done in 1993 for the NZ Underwater Association, has returned mixed results.
The local community does not necessarily need to suffer from the loss of a traditional fishing area. Sure, it was a sheltered spot and it was within reach. But fishermen got interested in this two-hour-each-way trip only after they had completely fished out the entire coast. From the map it can be seen that a huge area had been over-exploited. From our experience with the marine reserve at Leigh, the number of people who have learned to enjoy the fish as friends rather than fries, Tutukaka is bound to become a mecca for people from all over the world. Now that the Poor Knights, a unique worl wilderness area has been closed to exploitation, charterboat operators would be advised to join the growing wave of greenies. If you can't beat them, join them! Policing is not going to be a problem because of the already high number of charterboat operators who do dive trips.
The current marine reserves policy is indeed to set aside 10 percent of all habitats in all areas. It was intended to give an idea of how far we still need to go. But this policy has never had thorough debate and, to comfort Geoff Thomas, we at Seafriends do not subscribe to it. Marine protection policies must be practical and logical and there are many 'tools' to achieve this. Marine reserves are but one of those tools. At Seafriends we champion for more debate and a better understanding of conservation issues. We hope that the various fishing organisations will join us in our goals.
Read the letter to the Minister of Conservation, 26 May 1997
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