Groundbreaking initiative to protect underwater habitats
4 April, 2007
A groundbreaking fishing industry initiative will see some of New Zealand’s most significant and exciting underwater habitats protected from bottom-trawling and dredging, Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton announced today.
“Many of our most striking and fascinating underwater features will be protected, including cold water corals, seamounts and hydrothermal vents, each of which are specifically noted by the United Nations as vulnerable ecosystems," he said.
The Benthic (seabed habitat) Protected Areas initiative will cover 17 different areas and protect the seabed habitat of 30 percent of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – 1.25 million square kilometres (equivalent to four times New Zealand’s landmass).
Together with the 19 existing seamount closures (closed in 2000), the Benthic Protected Areas will protect 88 percent of all known active hydrothermal vents, 52 percent of all known seamounts, and 32% of the EEZ.
“The Government is acting now, by closing the areas under regulation, to provide immediate protection based on information currently available. In one action, New Zealand will protect 30 percent of its seabed. It took many decades to achieve the equivalent amount of protection on land," Jim Anderton said. “These areas are being set aside to protect our seabed environment. They are not fisheries management tools and are not designed to protect the entire marine ecosystem. The Government will continue to manage fisheries by setting catch limits and other rules."
“This is also consistent with last year’s UN General Assembly resolution that called upon states to take action to “protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, including seamounts, hydrothermal vents and cold water corals, from destructive fishing practices.”
In February 2006 the fishing industry took a proposal to the Government, suggesting that 30 percent of New Zealand’s EEZ be closed to bottom trawling and dredging.
"We have since consulted with stakeholders, made a series of amendments and added extra areas based on public submissions. These refinements have improved the plan. In addition to the new areas, the Marine Protected Area (MPA) process will continue, with further closures in the future if required. Industry will still continue to pay their share for research, and the current seamount closures – in which no trawling or dredging is permitted – will remain.”
“As parts of some of the areas have been fished, these measures will not only protect pristine habitat, but also allow areas that have been disturbed to return to their natural state.
“As well, this initiative allows for research to further our understanding of the seabed and its ecosystems and biodiversity, and focuses attention on inshore areas where natural values are higher and the risks greatest. All together, this is an impressive starting point for marine protection in the EEZ and I congratulate the industry for their responsible attitude to this issue," Jim Anderton said.
The Ministry of Fisheries worked with the Department of Conservation and the fishing industry to produce an initial position paper for public consultation.
Twenty-six submissions were received, including a Greenpeace Internet form submission (1614 copies via email).
Based on the advice in the submissions, several parts of the proposal were amended:
Three new areas have been added, which increases the number of underwater topographic features, seamounts, and hydrothermal vents covered by the proposal.
The initial proposal required an agreement by Government not to close further areas in the EEZ, except with substantial new information. This was amended to ensure the Marine Protected Area process will continue within the Territorial Sea (from the coast to the 12-mile limit), although full implementation of the MPA in the EEZ will be delayed until 2013. The Government can close further areas before 2013 if significant new information warrants it.
The initial proposal did not require the fishing industry to fund further deepwater seabed research. This was amended so that the fishing industry will pay a share – 33% of deepwater benthic research, up to $330,000 a year.
The initial proposal incorporated the existing seamount closures into BPAs. This was amended such that the seamount closures will remain, with their current level of protection – a full prohibition on all forms of trawling and dredging.
The proposal will no longer be recognised in legislation.
How the areas will be protected
Off-bottom trawl fishing is permitted with strict controls: two Ministry-approved observers on board, the vessel is satellite monitored, and an electronic net monitoring system is used to establish exactly where the fishing net is in relation to the bottom at all times.
To ensure that there is little risk of any gear ever touching the bottom, a buffer zone of 100 metres has been set. Fishing within 100 metres of the bottom is a criminal offence.
Furthermore, fishing within 50 metres is deemed to be touching the seabed and is a serious criminal offence, attracting a fine of $100,000 and seizure of the vessel.
Previous fishing in the new Benthic Protection Areas
Since 1989, trawling has occurred in 16 of the 17 areas, although 77% of this fishing has occurred in three areas. Since 1989, records show that 6,431 trawl tows started or finished within an area (72% bottom trawl, 28% midwater trawl) - a total of 118,369 km of trawling, catching over 18,300 tonnes of fish.
It is prudent to provide protection to marine habitats even if current technology has not developed to the extent that their exploitation is economically feasible.
Previous seabed protection in the EEZ
The most notable of these closures occurred in November 2000. The then Minister of Fisheries, Pete Hodgson, announced a prohibition on all trawling and dredging in 18 areas within the EEZ (c. 115,200 km2) to protect the seabed environment; in particular, 19 seamounts that were within those areas.
Further marine protection work prior to 2013
For the short term, the focus of marine protection will shift to the Territorial Sea (from the coast to the 12-mile limit), where the problems are more immediate and most acute – where the risks to marine biodiversity are greatest and where the highest economic, social and cultural values are found.
The Marine Protected Areas Policy was released in January 2006. The objective of the MPA Policy is to: Protect marine biodiversity by establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas that is comprehensive and representative of New Zealand’s marine habitats and ecosystems.
Marine Protected Areas take in a number of protection mechanisms, including marine reserves, marine parks, mätaitai, taiapure, rähui, fisheries closures, seasonal closures and marine mammal sanctuaries.
The Ministry of Fisheries and Department of Conservation are working jointly to progress marine protection under this policy.
All of the preparatory work needed for the offshore MPA process will continue. Only the designation of new areas in the EEZ will be postponed by a few years.
New Zealand’s Territorial Sea – from the coast to the 12-mile limit.
New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone – from the 12-mile limit to the 200-mile limit.