Oceans Reform Project


Over the course of 2020 and 2021, EDS was conducting a research project looking at the future of our oceans management system. Aotearoa New Zealand has jurisdiction over a very large marine domain, which is around 20 times the size of the country’s land area. The state of that environment has recently been assessed in a joint report by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats New Zealand (Our Marine Environment 2019). It describes a resource with many conflicting uses and priorities and with some serious and concerning environmental degradation and imminent threats of species extinctions. Biodiversity is in decline. Land-based activities are polluting our oceans and shorelines. Pest species are an ever-present threat. Climate change is affecting our seas and what can thrive in them. And there are questions about how we make the best use of scarce and contested marine resources.

Our system for managing our marine areas is in need of significant change if we are to turn this situation around and create a sustainable future for our oceans. We need to think about managing our estuaries, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in an integrated way, including the land-based activities and catchments that impact on them. The need to provide a more integrated framework has long been recognised. The current legal framework has developed over more than 50 years into an uneven patchwork of provisions. There are multiple pieces of overlapping marine legislation and some significant gaps in coverage, including no marine protected area legislation that applies outside the territorial sea. Some of the legislation is outdated and no longer fit for purpose including, most notably, the Wildlife Act 1953, the Marine Reserves Act 1971 and the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978. Ad hoc legislation for specific locations is indicative of failings in the broader system. Many Treaty and Māori customary claims over the marine area have yet to be settled. There is no overarching mechanism to help ensure that all legislation that is impacting on the marine environment is interacting coherently or producing optimal economic and environmental outcomes.

The EDS project will define and analyse the existing system and put forward options for change, including presenting three overall models for a future system that could be pursued. In doing so, it build on previous work by EDS on marine issues and on its recent multi-phase resource management system reform project. It will draw together the wide ranging research conducted by others on marine issues in recent years, including as part of the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge. It will be informed by a panel of Māori advisers.

The project will cover the key legislative regimes applying to the marine area, including those for fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, marine pollution and dumping, ocean mining, marine energy, marine biosecurity, marine protected areas, protected marine species and wildlife, foreshore and seabed, and resource management more generally (including the Resource Management Act 1991). It will shine spotlights on particular issues or topics, including sediment, wastewater, plastics and novel contaminants. It will be concerned not just with legislative arrangements, but also institutional settings, funding, and management tools. The role of Māori in marine management and the integration of a Te Ao Māori worldview into a future system will be matters of particular importance.

Among other things, the work will explore the overarching purpose of an oceans management system and principles that should underpin it; and the potential utility of fundamental reform of the existing legislative and institutional framework. It will look at how we can take a more strategic approach to our oceans, making the most of them for environmental, social, cultural and economic purposes, including through marine spatial planning. An important issue is the allocation of rights in the marine area, including to Māori, and rights to use and occupy marine space, to mine petroleum and minerals, and to harvest fish.

Most importantly, the project will be taking a holistic view of our oceans and the frameworks that manage them. Management of the sea is particularly challenging due to the fluid and interconnected nature of the marine environment, the paucity of information about it and the lack of well-defined property rights. Management approaches which we apply to land will not necessarily work for the sea, which is much more dynamic.

The need for oceans reform has been underscored by a recent Cabinet paper setting out the parameters for the government’s review of the resource management system, which refers to overlapping marine legislative frameworks being addressed through “a subsequent review of the marine system”. Previous efforts at oceans reform in the early 2000s have languished, and it is timely to take a fresh look and build momentum for change. A final report will be produced in December 2021, following an issues and options paper to be released in the middle of 2021.


Raewyn Peart, Policy Director

Greg Severinsen, Senior Policy Researcher


Last updated at 11:31AM on September 7, 2021