The indigenous population of a small island in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is fighting the national government for the right to protect the sea around it. These Maori could change history – and be a model for other coastal communities around the world.
Motiti, a small island lying just 10 kilometres (six miles) off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, is usually a tranquil spot. Inhabited by only 40 people, it lies close to the Astrolabe Reef, where scuba-divers congregate to marvel at the abundance and diversity of reef fishes and other marine life. On 5 October 2011, though, the island made headlines for a different reason: the 236-metre (775-foot) container ship MV Rena had run aground on the reef. It was the most serious environmental disaster in the Pacific nation’s history.
Oil and waste estimated at more than 230 tonnes contaminated the waters around the reef and another 350 tonnes of oil was scraped off the island’s beaches. More than 2,000 seabirds fell victim to the spill. But, as so often happens, something positive emerged from the disaster. In order to avoid further damage to the reef, a fishing and diving ban was imposed within a radius of two nautical miles. Four years later, the fishes and other sea creatures were back and abundant once more. In the absence of harmful human impacts, the local marine life was again flourishing.
All’s well that ends well? Far from it. Emboldened by the recovery, in April 2016 the Astrolabe Reef – including the wreck of the Rena – was reopened to divers. At the same time, the New Zealand authorities refused to ban fishing within three nautical miles of the reef for the next two years. Maori living on Motiti, including the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust (MRMT), protested fiercely but to no avail.
‘Since then, every man and his dog have been fishing on those rocks,’ complains Umuhuri Matehaere of the MRMT. ‘The reef is now in the same state as it was before.’ Refusing to remain silent, he and the others in the trust engaged in an expensive legal battle. ‘We, the local communities, know our environment best,’ they argued. ‘We should be able to co-decide what should be protected and how.’
Taking responsibility for the environment is in the Mãori DNA. These indigenous locals call themselves tangata whenua, or ‘people of the land’, consider themselves managers of the environment and do all they can to preserve their mauri, or ‘life force’, for future generations. ‘While the Western approach is to take advantage of the “stock” of a particular species for the benefit of humans, for the Maori protecting the ocean means protecting our environment so that our cultural and spiritual relationship with the life force of the ocean can continue,’ explains marine biologist Te Atarangi (T.A.) Sayers, whose family has been linked to Motiti Island for 15 generations. He continues, ‘In contrast to the existing system, we ensure ecologically sustainable management.’ For him, long-term usability instead of exploitation is the motto. And the Environment Court of Tauranga, Bay of Plenty, under whose jurisdiction Motiti falls, agreed.
On 5 December 2016, a new legal declaration set a precedent: within the regulations of the Resource Management Act, protection zones could be established at a regional level and fishing-related activities could be restricted, with the aim of protecting biodiversity and preserving both the ecological and the cultural value of the habitat.
Such a pronouncement flew in the face of regulations such as the Fisheries Act promulgated by the New Zealand government, and indeed the government appealed against the ruling. But during the austral summer of 2017 the legality of the Environment Court’s decision was confirmed by the High Court. Justice Christian Whata ruled in principle that the Resource Management Act empowers regional councils to regulate fishing in order to preserve marine biodiversity, significant habitats and Mãori relationships with the ocean and taonga (treasured) species.