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Conflicting uses with New Zealand management of its ocean territory

7 September 2005

As a maritime nation with the world's sixth largest Exclusive Economic Zone, New Zealand has a big responsibility for managing a large piece of the world's oceans.

There has been extensive exploitation of natural resources.  The government explains that the lack of conservation has been caused by delays in preparing an Oceans Policy and legislation.

However, nothing has stood in the way of fishing, offshore oil and gas drilling, and mining.  While conservation is stalled, the Ministry of Economic Development has forged ahead with a mineral prospecting licence and consideration of additional licences totalling 123,000 sq.km to Neptune Resources Ltd.

Every New Zealander with environmental concerns must have great pride in the government's position with the International Whaling Commission, as a leading nation opposing any commercial take of whales.  Development of ecotourism as an alternate industry to offset whaling is a model example of marine conservation.

"... whales have now come to symbolise the excesses to which unrestrained human activity can go ... their potential recovery is widely seen as a signal as to whether humans can restrain themselves for the benefit of future generations ..."

The conservation of whales in the 21st century, Department of Conservation

Whales are getting help but many other marine species are not getting enough, or any at all.

Fish quotas have been radically reduced due to overfishing.

Killing of seabirds by longline fishing is still too high.

Bycatch from hoki fishing has not been sufficiently reduced.

And bottom trawling has expanded into the high seas to destroy more cold water coral and benthic communities.

The rush of one branch of government to exploit mineral resources from the deep seabed is proceeding, without the adoption of measures to regulate all activities within the EEZ, and with complete disregard for the conservation that would be assumed for any comparable terrestrial activity.

Surface mining of the deep seabed will be blind, and damage caused by it will be indiscriminate, catastrophic and long-term.  This type of mining will alter geochemistry and potentially cause the extinction of unique microbial flora. There is a need to protect flora and fauna of the seabed because so much of it is unknown.

The limited range of studies carried out so far, most funded by the New Zealand government, suggest that the deep sea biomes around New Zealand are of comparable richness to tropical forests.  So to allow the mining of these systems would be similar to tropical rain forest destruction, something that the government has opposed vigorously.

The government has inconsistent and conflicting methods of managing the natural resources of the deepsea that change from one activity to another.  Conservation cannot proceed because the Marine Reserves Bill has been repeatedly delayed, yet mining is allowed to proceed without any form of adequate regulation.

The Neptune prospecting licence contains no reference to any laws or regulations, that address measures to prevent, reduce, control or monitor pollution of the marine environment from mining operations.

The sensitivity of seamount ecosystems has previously been recognised, though inadequately. Nineteen seamounts including the Rumble III and Brothers seamounts on the Kermadec Ridge, were closed to fishing in September 2000 by the Minister of Fisheries, Pete Hodgson, to safeguard the marine life and habitats they support.

It is widely accepted that bottom trawling is destructive of sensitive seamount ecosystems. Yet mineral mining which is equally destructive, if not more so, is now being pursued on Kermadec seamounts.  The initial mineral deposits found by Neptune Resources were at the Brothers seamount.

The previously closed seamounts were selected according to a draft seamount management strategy developed by the Ministry of Fisheries, with the assistance of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.  Action by one Ministry was quickly compromised by another within just two years.

Recently, when addressing the New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council Conference, the Minister of Conservation, Chris Carter, said the view of the government is that our marine area is as deserving of protection as our land area.  He pointed out that 14 National Parks are now recognised as social, economic and scientific assets that almost all New Zealanders enjoy and celebrate.  The Minister very accurately added that the same is not the case in the sea.

With a massive scale of mining about to occur, the need for laws and regulations governing all activities in the EEZ is overdue.  Why does New Zealand have controls on land with the Resource Management Act, but no similar process at sea?  The same standards of environmental assessment, and project review that are applied on land, must be enacted for the ocean within New Zealand's jurisdiction.

The features and full potential of all aspects of deep seabed ecosystems must be considered by the New Zealand government, in designing a comprehensive management framework.  This requires a precautionary approach as well as an ecosystem approach.

In establishing a regime addressing the exploitation of deep seabed resources, it should be considered that appropriation of these ecosystems and resources to private interests, may not be the correct action with respect to their scientific and human welfare contributions.

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You may also send a copy of your letter, or a separate letter to:
Hon Chris Carter, Minister of Conservation
Hon David Parker, Minister of Energy
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Hon Jim Anderton, Minister of Fisheries
Hon Trevor Mallard, Minister of Economic Development  tmallard@ministers.govt.nz

TerraNature has addressed the need for protection of seamounts, legislation to regulate all uses in the EEZ, and to stop mining in locations with potentially invaluable ecosystems in a letter to Prime Minister Helen Clark.

See TerraNature letter

United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

Coastal States have the obligation under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to protect and preserve the marine environment.

The Convention recognises the sovereign right to exploit natural resources, but adds that it is pursuant to environmental policies and in accordance with the duty to protect and preserve the marine environment.  It is clearly apparent that mineral mining of the deep seabed is proceeding without any established New Zealand marine environmental protection policy.

UNCLOS goes further in stating that measures shall include those necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems.  Neptune mining operations target sulphide deposits on seamounts and around hydrothermal vents.

These habitats must surely be regarded as rare and fragile, because of their dynamic nature as centers of irradiation of species towards virgin seabed areas, ancient coral forests, a high rate of endemism at separate locations, and extreme environments containing organisms that live in temperatures of 30-80°C.

TerraNature Trustee Dr David Given points out that "one way of looking at such deep-sea areas is to regard them as the marine equivalent of Antarctica".  "Just as New Zealand has been a major player in both the formation of the Antarctic Treaty system and the minerals extraction moratorium for the Antarctic, so there is opportunity for New Zealand to ensure that this last great frontier for science and last great wilderness area - the deep sea systems - is protected as a unique asset for future generations and because of its unique intrinsic worth".

United Nations identification of conflicting uses on seamounts

There is worldwide concern for the protection of seamounts that goes beyond prospecting and mining.

The issue of conflicting uses was addressed in the UN Secretary-General's annual report to the 58th session of the General Assembly, which called for the need to clarify aspects of the regime for marine science research (MSR), including the distinction between pure and applied science, and how to address marine genetic resources.

The report highlighted conflicting uses of the deep seabed between pure MSR, mineral prospecting, bioprospecting, and conservation.  The annual report to the 58th General Assembly in 2003 identified MSR as a specific threat to hydrothermal vents.

These environments are that sensitive that excessive sampling is regarded as harmful.

Government designation of marine reserves

In 2001, the Labour government established a goal of putting 10 percent of New Zealand's ocean area, including the territorial sea and the EEZ, within marine protected areas by 2010.

A total area of 760,368 ha in 16 marine reserves was established in the territorial sea before Labour's policy from 1974 until 1999. Following that period, and since Labour's announcement of its 10 percent goal in 2001, only one 690 ha reserve has been established by order in council.

Another three reserves covering 534,000 ha have been approved by the Minister of Conservation, but await the approval of other Ministers. No reserves can be designated in the EEZ until passage of the Marine Reserves Bill which was introduced into Parliament in 2002.

This poor performance record of meeting marine reserve goals, reflects the difficulty different branches of government appear to be having in working together to meet common ocean management goals.

Copyright © 2005 TerraNature Trust. All rights reserved.

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