Sciblogs: Part 6: The ultimate commons

Sciblogs: Part 6: The ultimate commons

Clocking in at more than 20 times New Zealand’s land area, our marine environment is extraordinary and full of biodiversity we have yet to even describe.

But weak and dysfunctional governance renders protection of marine biodiversity from ongoing decline almost impossible.

Our ‘big blue backyard’ faces key issues, particularly the absences of a staunch statutory advocate, effective conservation models and a decent framework for planning and resource allocation. Limited scientific research leaves us with a lot of uncertainty due to poor knowledge of marine ecosystems. And on top of these domestic drivers are the global pressures of the impact of climate change, ocean acidification and invasions of marine pests.

In Vanishing Naturewe demonstrated that the property rights of the fishing industry were unreasonably dominant in the marine environment.

The environmental principles to which the industry is supposed to adhere are insufficient to shift practices enough to protect biodiversity. Even under the Marine Mammal Protection Act 1978, if you hit, catch or injure a marine mammal in any way, all you have to do is report it and everything is OK. The ageing Marine Reserves Act 1971 is barely functional and protects only a smidgen of the marine environment.

Enter the Department of Conservation, charged under the Conservation Act 1987 with the duty ‘to advocate the conservation of natural and historic resources generally’ and to implement the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement in addition to those legislations named above. We’ve already discussed the contraction in DOC’s statutory advocacy activities in recent times, but DOC has always had a terrestrial bias within that too.

Regional councils have specific and wide-ranging requirements to manage habitat quality out to the 12 nautical mile mark, but most have their sights firmly trained inland (that’s not irrelevant – sediment management is crucial to protecting the ultimate receiving environment) and are often reluctant to take up their marine management mandate with any gusto.

Where the statutory grounds to protect marine biodiversity are provided for, they are often not used. As a result, far more effort goes into taking things out of the ocean than in arguing to leave them alone. Without addressing these key governance issues, the somewhat ill-deserved supremacy of incumbent users will never be effectively challenged and marine environments will continue to degrade with ongoing biodiversity loss.

Recent years have seen some improvements…

EDS was closely involved in the development of the Exclusive Economic Zone and Extended Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 and this has improved the situation somewhat by providing for environmental impact assessment processes. But it does not apply to fishing, which continues to trawl many thousands of square kilometres with no requirement for an impact assessment at the outset.

The new Marine Protected Areas legislation arising from the National government also wholly excludes the EEZ – the very element the ageing predecessor was criticised for failing to address. It appears the power of private interests is winning here, directly through their activities and more subtly through agency capture preventing agencies using their powers and authority to protect the public interest in a healthy marine environment.

In addition to the fragmented legal landscape, there exists no coherent model to fund marine conservation, due to the diminished agency roles for public interest advocacy and an absence of a user-pays model for the interests that do operate. Marine conservation is harder, more expensive and must operate at scale to be effective, so opportunities for communities and the NGO sector to participate are more limited than on land and in freshwater.

In practice this means that the resources tend to go to the powerful elites and there is little to no contest about this injustice (remember the collective action problem from Part 2?).

This biased and uneven resource allocation framework is a key barrier to effective management of the marine environment, from both an economic and an environmental perspective. There is no opportunity for a strategic discussion on what needs protecting from all development and where different types of development might best be located.

These factors combined help demonstrate some momentum toward the introduction of Marine Spatial Planning for New Zealand. Marine Spatial Planning is being trialled in the Hauraki Gulf at present, and is likely to create a fairer playing field between the different interests relevant to that geographic area. EDS has many times called for MSP in New Zealand, and the dysfunctional governance of our oceans suggests the sooner the better, but it must be teamed with statutory and regulatory support to be effective.

Governance is further hampered by a high level of uncertainty. Our marine environment is vast. Our investment in public good science to understand the world around us (particularly when immediate economic benefits are absent or unclear) is minuscule and many of our scientists have been repurposed as industry consultants. There is a crisis of expertise in many of our institutions (here and around the world) which creates bottlenecks for investigations where funding is available as there may simply not be enough people with the skills needed to support the research (e.g. taxonomists). This suggests a long term view of supporting marine science is needed and that exercising the precautionary principle in decision-making utterly essential.

To better safeguard marine biodiversity three things need to happen:

1. The development of robust, fit-for-purpose marine legislation attuned to the modern needs of our oceans and inland waters. This requires a significant rethink of some aspects the dubious Marine Protected Areas proposal undergoing consultation, most particularly by extending it into the EEZ.  The efficacy of the legislation also depends on the agencies charged with statutory duties exercising those functions with vigour and purpose, formal structures that limit political interference with advocacy and a far more effective funding model for marine conservation, including more levies and charges for users of marine areas.

2. The introduction of Marine Spatial Planning will enable New Zealand to have a strategic discussion about the future of our oceans, what economic development within them is palatable and where – if at all – it should go. It must enable long-held and assumed property rights to be challenged, reduced and modified to fit modern societal expectations.

3. Investment in more public good science (including training the scientists to do that work and keeping them securely employed) to map, identify and describe the species and ecosystems that call it home. Investment must be ratcheted up, so that we know what we’ve got (at least before we lose it). We will likely always operate with substantial uncertainty, however, and safeguarding biodiversity will mean exercising the precautionary principle in recognition of that imperfect knowledge. This, too, will challenge assumed property rights and rely on institutional and legal reforms described above. 

In March 2015, the Environmental Defence Society published a critical analysis of biodiversity management in New Zealand in a book titled Vanishing Nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. This blog series draws out the key issues. If you’d like to buy the book follow this link.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Tom Hall.

Article by Dr Marie Brown, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Defence Society

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Last updated at 3:25PM on March 24, 2016