Hauraki Gulf report warns 'mass mortalities of marine life' due to climate change

Newshub can exclusively reveal the latest assessment of the country's most popular marine park, which warns of "continued ecological collapse." 

The 2023 State of our Gulf shines a spotlight on the Hauraki Gulf over the past three years. 

The big issues raised in this report relate to climate change and warn of "mass mortalities of marine life" due to warming and more acidic and polluted waters. 

A quarter of Auckland's beaches had dangerous levels of sewage present for some of the time over the past three years. 

"Zombie kina" are decimating more underwater kelp forests due to species that eat kina, like crayfish, disappearing. 

Eighteen percent of seabirds are threatened and 67 percent are at risk. 

And the verdict is well and truly in on the Government's marine protection announcement.

Auckland's well-known Hauraki Gulf is under an immense amount of pressure.
Auckland's well-known Hauraki Gulf is under an immense amount of pressure. Photo credit: Newshub

Dawn breaks across the Hauraki Gulf.

It's a playground for millions, however, according to Hauraki Gulf Forum CEO Alex Rogers, it's a paradise under incredible pressure.

"The Gulf is really hurting. It's an ecosystem in a bit of freefall in many areas at the moment," Rogers said.

One area highlighted in the report is the burden of urban sprawl and the pollutants that come with it. 

According to Hauraki Gulf Forum co-chair Nicola MacDonald, local authorities need to be held to account. 

"Council need to do their job and make sure all of those rubbish and pollutions do not feed directly into the Hauraki Gulf, because if it keeps going on this way, we're looking at a wasteland," Macdonald said.

The report, the forum's seventh, reveals: 

  • Over 3000 building consents for new homes within 200 metres of shore were granted in the past three years
  • Waitematā Harbour and Tamaki Estuary have the highest levels of toxic chemicals like copper, zinc and lead
  • Almost 4000 tonnes of nitrogen from fertilisers and livestock effluent have drained from the Hauraki Plains into the Gulf each year

According to Macdonald, there are parts of the Gulf that "have become the cesspool for runoff."

When looking at marine life: 

  • Mass mortalities of fish, shellfish and seabirds are likely to become more common due to climate change
  • There's been an increase in kina barrens - now covering 33 percent of subtidal reefs
  • "Gaps remain" in key fish stock data
  • There's a "notable" 67 percent increase in commercial vessels landing Eagle Ray
  • But the use of commercial methods that disturb the seabed have declined, with 27 percent fewer bottom trawls and 21 percent fewer Danish seines conducted in the most recent three-year period
  • Black petrel deaths from fishing have increased
  • Seabirds like the white-fronted tern, shags, gulls and penguins don't have enough food
Newshub's Investigations Correspondent, Micahel Morrah, discussing the lack of marine protection with Alex Rogers.
Newshub's Investigations Correspondent, Micahel Morrah, discussing the lack of marine protection with Alex Rogers. Photo credit: Newshub

According to Auckland Museum's natural sciences head Dr Tom Trnski, reduced numbers of small fish like pilchards and jack mackerel means there's less nutrient-rich food available. 

"So it's a bit like being on a starvation diet for a long period of time or a fast for a period of time. You can survive on that for a time but eventually, when you need that resource to breed, or lay eggs, you don't have enough energy to produce enough eggs or to look after your chicks even," Trnski said.

On Wednesday, the Government announced an expansion to the Gulf's marine protected areas, however, Trnski believes the proposal is weak.

"The lack of ambition in marine protection is astounding. We are so far behind. From being leaders in the world back in the 1970s and establishing one of the first marine reserves at Leigh to now being way behind the curve."

"Does it go far enough? It's not quite there," Rogers said.

"We know science says 30 percent of the Gulf needs to be protected, and we do that on land," he said.

"We protect about 30 percent of our whenua in national parks around the country. That's what we need in the Gulf."

Despite ongoing challenges, the report notes for the first time we're "on the cusp" of delivering change, largely due to iwi and communities taking matters into their own hands.

For example, iwi putting rahui on scallop beds and mussel restoration projects.  

"It is about the will of New Zealanders to say 'enough is enough' and let's start looking after this national treasure," Macdonald said.

Because, according to her, the risk of inaction is far too great. 

The Government said on Wednesday it was introducing 19 new marine protection areas, meaning 18 percent of the Gulf is protected. 

However, Rogers described it as misleading due to them including seafloor protection areas within that equation. 

Those areas are closed to trawling and dredging, however, recreational fishers can still anchor and fish there. 

It's worth noting the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says if marine areas involve extraction, "they are not Marine Protected Areas." 

According to Rogers, including existing cable zones in the equation is "disingenuous," as they are there to protect internet cables, "not beautiful, abundant rocky reefs." 

The announcement will restrict areas where bottom trawling can happen in the Gulf, but did not ban it completely. 

What's been called "trawl corridors", specific areas where trawling will be allowed, are still unknown despite being talked about for years. 

The fishing industry said it is not holding up the process. 

"MPI [the Ministry for Primary Industries] is controlling the timing on this process. We are not aware of anyone from the fishing side requesting a delay," said Seafood NZ CEO Jeremy Helson. 

MPI told Newshub more time is needed to get it right. 

"There will be another consultation process starting later in the year on proposed options for the scale and placement of trawl corridors," said Fisheries NZ director of fisheries management Emma Taylor.

"We will be asking for feedback from all New Zealanders interested in the marine ecosystems of the Hauraki Gulf, including commercial fishers who are directly affected by the proposed trawl corridors."