Hauraki Gulf plan proposing more marine protected areas 'boldest move' in 20 years - expert

After years of neglect, significant changes are being proposed to the country's most popular marine park in what's being called the "boldest move in 20 years". 

The big change is marine protected areas - there will be 18 more of them. 

The Hauraki Gulf is Auckland's treasured marine playground and part of the country's most popular fishery, Snapper 1. 

But beneath the surface, it's suffering. 

Last year's State of the Hauraki report found crayfish are "functionally extinct", creating lifeless kina-covered reefs, snapper stocks were in serious decline and 22 percent of seabirds were threatened. 

On Tuesday, Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker announced a plan to reverse the situation. 

"It's the most ambitious plan that we've ever had for restoration of any local fishery because the Hauraki Gulf is so pressured by the enormous populations that live around it," he said.

Auckland University marine scientist professor Andrew Jeffs told Newshub the Government's proposal is significant. 

"This is the boldest move we've seen towards protecting the Hauraki Gulf marine environment since the Hauraki Gulf Park was established 20 years ago."

The 18 new protected areas would almost triple existing levels of protection.

There would be "high protection" zones, which would effectively ban all fishing. There would also be "seafloor protection" zones, where activities like dredging, bottom trawling, and mining would be excluded. 

The plan would expand protective areas in the waters of the Hauraki Gulf from 6.6 percent to 17.6 percent. 

Areas getting major protection include the Alderman Islands off Tairua, Kawau Island off Warkworth, Tiritiri Matangi, Little Barrier Island, and the Mokohinau Islands. 

Bottom trawling would be restricted to specific "corridors", a move that will impact commercial fishing firm Sanford that trawls around Great Barrier Island. 

The Hauraki Gulf.
The Hauraki Gulf. Photo credit: Getty Images

However, its CEO Peter Reidie says the company is all about sustainable fishing. 

"If those rules enhance sustainable fishing, we'll be totally behind it, yes," he told Newshub. 

The recreational sector is "cautiously optimistic" about the plan but wants bottom trawling gone completely, with LegaSea spokesperson, Sam Woolford, saying there "isn't space for destructive fishing methods". 

The exact size and location of those corridors have not been confirmed. 

"That means that we're just going to take more fish and put more pressure on a concentrated or smaller space, and that's what they've deemed corridors," Woolford said. 

Sanford says their bottom trawling in the gulf is not extensive and argues a blanket ban is narrow-minded. 

Parker has also said a total ban is not required at this stage.  

Under the plan, scallop dredging for recreational anglers would be banned. However, commercial boats can continue to dredge for scallops, but the areas they operate in would be frozen, meaning they couldn't change areas.

The plan to revitalise the Hauraki Gulf is not just about reducing the impacts of fishing, but the Government also wants to spend more money on monitoring the unique environment and improving the management of protected species that inhabit it. 

Andrew Jeffs says what's important now is action. 

"We need to make sure we actually stick to the timeline and actually implement the plan as planned," he said.  

That plan would see the protection areas in place in three years following further consultation with mana whenua and the public.