A local conservation group is hoping to establish a new ‘blue belt’ marine protection zone between Leigh and Tawharanui in a bid to restore severely depleted fish and shellfish stocks.
Whangateau HarbourCare is making the proposal in memory of renowned marine biologist, conservationist and underwater photographer Dr Roger Grace, who died last year.
Committee member Elizabeth Foster says Dr Grace, who lived locally, worked tirelessly to improve the health of the entire Hauraki Gulf and would support any move to protect local waters.
“I know he would be wholly approving of what we’re doing. It’s essentially what he wanted for the whole Gulf,” she says. “The latest State of the Gulf report came out and it was disastrous, so we thought we have quite a compact area here, let’s try to do something.”
While blue belts are common in the UK, they are new to NZ. They work in much the same way for the ocean and coastline as green belts do for land. Establishing one would involve the community applying for a change to the Auckland Council Unitary Plan.
“We don’t quite want to follow the UK’s plan, because it’s a Government thing there and the last thing we want to go through is Government; it would take a lifetime to happen,” Elizabeth says. “This is about local people taking on board the idea and starting to push for a blue belt for this area.”
HarbourCare is keen to get feedback from as many residents and organisations on what people want for the waters from Cape Rodney to Takatu Point, including Omaha Bay and Whangateau Harbour.
Elizabeth says the aim of the blue belt would be to protect marine life, keep coastlines and waterways clean, healthy and safe and possibly establish or extend marine conservation areas. Maori customary rights, sustainable commercial and recreational fishing and other recreation pursuits on and under the sea would likely all be retained, but “damaging fishing techniques and recreational activities” would not be allowed.
A post about the proposal on social media during lockdown prompted a spirited response, with posters from the Leigh area largely in favour, but many Omaha residents worried that it could mean a clampdown on recreational fishing and activities. According to Elizabeth, this is not necessarily the case.
“It’s all about increasing biodiversity and developing sustainability,” she says. “There are lots of issues, but sustainability doesn’t mean you can’t do or take anything. And it’s up to the community – we have to get people to say what they do want, as well as what they don’t want.”
She says applying to create a blue belt now is only possible due to the Motiti Island Court of Appeal decision in November, which ruled that councils could use the Resource Management Act to control fishing.
“If we could persuade Council it’s viable for us to do this, then other groups could do something similar in their areas. It could make a huge difference.”
The HarbourCare group is writing to Council in the hope of encouraging it to support a plan change, and consulting with a number of interested parties and organisations. A meeting is being held this month with Ngati Manuhiri. A public meeting to outline and discuss the proposal will be organised when Covid-19 restrictions allow.