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Rebecca Priestley: Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary

The proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is good news for science and conservation.

L’Esperance Rock. Photo/Malcolm Francis
L’Esperance Rock. Photo/Malcolm Francis

Update: RNZ reports that Te Aupouri iwi have pulled out of the Kermadec support trip.

Four years ago, I travelled to Raoul Island, the northernmost of the Kermadec Islands. I was part of a group of scientists selected by Pew Charitable Trusts to accompany students on a Sir Peter Blake expedition. One day into our two-day voyage on the HMNZS Canterbury, we altered course to sail through a mysterious pumice raft and collect samples for analysis. On Raoul, I saw local species of nikau, pohutukawa, pukeko and tui. I also went shark ­fishing, whale spotting and plankton collecting.

During our voyage, I blogged about the islands to raise awareness of this amazing, subtropical part of the country and support the campaign to protect the entire Kermedecs area, out to the edge of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In September 2015, after more than six years of campaigning by Pew, WWF and Forest and Bird, and with support from many scientists, artists and journalists, Prime ­Minister John Key announced that the 620,000sq km Kermadecs marine area, from the islands’ shorelines to the economic zone limit, would become an ocean sanctuary, with all fishing and mining banned.

“The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will be one of the world’s largest and most significant fully protected areas, preserving important habitats for seabirds, whales and dolphins, endangered marine turtles and thousands of species of fish and other marine life,” Key said from New York.

Kermadec petrels. Photo/Malcolm Francis
Kermadec petrels. Photo/Karen Baird

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill was introduced to Parliament, and passed its first reading, in March. The bill has wide support, ­including from Ngati Kuri and Te Aupouri, the two iwi with mana over the islands, but the Maori fisheries trust Te Ohu Kaimoana has mounted a legal challenge, on the grounds that the Government has ignored the sanctuary’s effect on iwi fishing interests.

This issue has to be resolved, but the sanctuary – which the Government hopes to have in place by November 2016 – is considered good news for science and conservation.

Under the proposed bill, “marine scientific research” is one of the few permitted activities. University of Auckland marine bio­logist Rochelle Constantine, who has visited the Kermadecs twice, last year led a project to tag passing humpback whales to track their annual ­migration from Oceania to Antarctica.

She says “everything from small bryozoans to large whales are found in the Kermadecs and we know even from the 12-mile protected area that every time we look, we find things new to science that help us understand distribution, diversity and the myriad interactions that make life possible in this remarkable oceanic space”.

In April, at a two-day symposium, the science community – including marine biologists, oceanographers, volcanologists and ornithologists – will set priorities for research and activities in the proposed sanctuary.

For me, the highlights will be seeing fellow voyagers again, and hearing Niwa geologist Richard Wysoczanski reporting that the pumice raft of 2012, which was ­identified as from the Havre sub­marine volcano, was the largest eruption of its kind ever recorded.

A Galapagos shark. Photo/Malcolm Francis
A Galapagos shark. Photo/Malcolm Francis


Area: 620,000sq km

Main islands: Raoul, Macauley, Curtis, Cheeseman, L’Esperance, L’Havre.

Home to: six million seabirds of 39 species, more than 150 species of fish, 35 species of whales and dolphins, three species of endangered sea turtles.

Deepest water: Kermadec Trench, 10,047m.

Kermadec Science Symposium: Discoveries & Connections, NZ Academy of Fine Arts, 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington, April 11-12.

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