Growing up on Waiheke with sailor parents in the early 1980s, we spent most of our weekends and school holidays sailing (slowly) around the Hauraki Gulf in our 100 year old cutter, Rewa.
We rarely bothered to get excited as we went past groups of kororā – they dived as the boat came near and were such a common sight. A trip to the Barrier would not be complete unless we had at least one pod of dolphins come frolic in the bow wave for a while and our fishing line – a reel of nylon with a teaspoon with a three pronged hook for a lure – would generally yield a dinner of a large kahawai if we remembered to let it out.
Back on land, Don Chapple was even then making regular visits to our classrooms to teach us the importance of conservation and demonstrate the futilities of wrapping produce in plastic at the supermarket.
I also remember much frustration about the need to conserve the precious jewel that is our Tikapa Moana (see 30 years ago on page 4) and the worry that the National Quota Management System introduced by the government in 1986 did not offer enough future protection.
Since then we have done much to transform the islands of the Gulf above the water with regeneration of native bush and pest eradication making possible the release of rare and endangered species to many of the 50 islands that make up the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
However, beneath the waves is a different story. Several species including crayfish are ‘functionally extinct’ (as in their reduced population no longer plays a significant role in the ecosystem). Vast shellfish beds are gone, noise and plastic pollutants are growing and E.coli levels make many Auckland beaches at times ‘unsafe for swimming’.
Sailing around the Gulf now, few would argue we are in trouble here. This was the focus of TVNZ’s Sunday on 7 March when the broadcast pointed to the latest studies by NIWA scientists which say the number of fish in the gulf is less than half of what it was in the 1920s. The broadcast also called on Auckland University’s Dr Nick Shears who pointed out ecosystem collapses up and down the coast with up to 50 percent of the shallow water reefs around islands in the Gulf being kina barrens. No kelp, no big breeding snapper, no diversity; a murky underwater desert.
The latest three-yearly Hauraki Gulf Forum report is equally dire with damage from overfishing, development and population. Most of the issues that existed when the Marine Park was established 20 years ago have not been resolved, the report said.
A recent sailing holiday with my own young children provided a stark contrast between the effects of tangible action so obvious around Leigh – and the rest of the gulf, where talkfests go back to the 1970s.
As we rounded Cape Rodney, leaving the Gulf behind us for Leigh in blustery sailing in early January, we saw our first pod of dolphins for the day. Groups of three or more penguin stared at us curiously every few minutes – I stoppped calling the kids to look after a while. Pakahā and tītī flocks deafened us with their wings making such a racket in such vast numbers that my son squealed delightedly “it’s like being in a David Attenborough documentary”and shearwaters skipped across the waves all day. Two more pods of dolphins later (in less than four hours sailing) and I remembered – that was what the Gulf was like as a kid. A constant onslaught of nature’s critters: you were in no doubt that you were outnumbered by them.
The marine reserve in Leigh was formed 30 years ago and in a span of a generation the once barren waters have been regenerated back to bountiful undersea fauna supporting clear waters teaming with life.
Coming home, having been in a self enforced media blackout for our summer cruise, we were greeted by the news that Ngāti Pāoa had instigated a rāhui on the Gulf – initially for two years but perhaps longer.
This feels like a very significant turning point.
The concept of rāhui is of targeted, immediate intervention to protect a resource in the commons – Ngāti Pāoa leader Hariata Gordon put a rāhui on Cheltenham Beach in the mid 1990s to protect its small crustaceans from merciless harvesting. We need to build on this week’s momentum. We should no longer accept inaction and sluggish bureaucratic processes.
This week´s Gulf News is crammed with the energetic efforts of so many islanders to rebuild the ecology of our Gulf.
The actions we take this week could lay the foundations. As American sculptor Elizabeth King pointed out, it’s process that saves us from the poverty of our intentions. •