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Oped to the New Zealand Herald on the Proposed New Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Legislation

New Zealanders cherish the marine environment and, with so much at stake, it's not surprising that the sea is often portrayed as a battlefield of competing interests and values...

New Zealanders cherish the marine environment and, with so much at stake, it's not surprising that the sea is often portrayed as a battlefield of competing interests and values.

It's rare to find the commercial fishing industry, iwi, recreational fishers and environmental groups agreeing on anything to do with marine management. But these groups all make similar points about one aspect of the Government's proposed new Marine Protected Areas (MPA) legislation announced by Environment Minister Nick Smith last week.

The common message is that Recreational Fishing Parks - which the National Party has promised to establish in the Hauraki Gulf and the Marlborough Sounds - are not Marine Protected Areas and should not be included in the new MPA Act.

According to the Government's own consultation document, Recreational Fishing Parks are intended to enhance the enjoyment and value of recreational fishing, not to protect marine biodiversity. As Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy said, the Government is promoting the two parks because "it's hugely important that mum and dad and the kids are able to catch a fish."

It's difficult to reconcile encouraging people to get out and catch more fish with better protection of marine biodiversity.

The reality is that it is far more likely that Recreational Fishing Parks will have a harmful effect on sustainable fisheries and biodiversity protection. If commercial fishing is prohibited inside the boundaries of Recreational Fishing Parks, the displaced fishing effort will simply increase pressure on fish stocks outside the park boundaries.

Environmental group EDS also raises the prospect that Recreational Fishing Parks could shift commercial fishing from small-scale, low-impact inshore methods to bulk fishing methods that some people perceive to be less environmentally friendly.

Fish don't respect boundaries drawn by bureaucrats, so setting aside areas for recreational fishing is never going to help "mum and dad and the kids to catch a fish." Instead, recreational fishers, like commercial and customary fishers, need sustainably-managed, abundant fisheries throughout their favoured fishing grounds. That's a fisheries management issue, not a marine protection issue.

Recreational fishing lobbyists concur with this reasoning. In their recent input to the Ministry for Primary Industries' review of fisheries management, the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council, the New Zealand Angling and Casting Association, and LegaSea jointly submitted that "recreational parks push commercial effort into someone else's front yard. This domino effect of serial depletion is ignored by those promoting measures for political gain or to achieve an outcome for an isolated area."

Marlborough Recreational Fishing Association spokesperson Peter Watson is also concerned about the displacement of fishing effort to areas outside the proposed parks and suggests that "the New Zealand recreation public... want[s] fishery debates to be about the total fishery not just a couple of recreational parks."

Instead of Recreational Fishing Parks, the coalition of recreational fishing groups proposes a mix of solutions, including method and gear restrictions in the near shore zone and changes to the way catch levels are set. Irrespective of the merit of these ideas, this is exactly the type of debate that needs to be undertaken directly among fisheries stakeholders, with solutions implemented under the Fisheries Act, not an MPA Act.

Environmental groups are sending a similar message. Forest and Bird's Marine Advocate Anton van Helden observes that "Recreational Fishing Parks are not a marine protection tool. They are a fisheries management tool and have no place in marine protected areas legislation."

Maori are also central parties to the debate. Jamie Tuuta, Chairman of Te Ohu Kaimoana (the Maori Fisheries Trust), makes the point that "locking off inshore areas of the marine environment to commercial fishing in favour of allowing only recreational fishing is not a sustainability issue ... It should be no surprise that the removal of rights to satisfy political demands will face legitimate opposition from Maori."

Given the absence of any logical connection between Recreational Fishing Parks and MPAs, it is tempting to conclude that Ministers have included the proposed parks in their MPA consultation document as a distraction from the shortcomings in the proposed MPA regime. Maybe if everyone's busy discussing recreational fishing they won't notice the lack of detail and obvious gaps in the proposed new MPA framework?

It is vital that we have an effective regime for protecting New Zealand's marine biodiversity. It's also vital that we have sustainable fisheries which are able to be used and valued by all fishers.

But let's not confuse these two issues. There's no place in the MPA framework for Recreational Fishing Parks. Everyone who uses and values New Zealand's marine environment understands this, so why don't Nick Smith and his colleagues? We need to clarify the debate by separating these two important issues so that solutions for each can be considered on their merits, in the appropriate context.

Dr Jeremy Helson is the chief executive of Fisheries Inshore New Zealand Ltd and works with commercial fishing organisations on issues associated with fisheries management and marine protection.

By Jeremy Helson