Goat Island Marine Reserve Update

Goat Island Marine Reserve Update

By Roger Grace

It  was always, and still is, the most popular dive site on the mainland coast. New Zealand’s first marine reserve at Goat Island Bay, Leigh, is still going strong after 27 years since its creation.

It has not been without its problems, however. During its gestation period back in the early 1970s there was huge opposition to the creation of a marine reserve in which nobody could go fishing, no one could take crayfish, and even the little crabs and rock pool fishes had to be left alone. Kids could not even take a dead shell away from the beach. Many people thought the whole concept was ridiculous. The idea was certainly revolutionary, and even visionary. But 30 years and 15 more marine reserves later, the idea has caught on as the huge benefits are realised. Far from staying away, thousands of people visit the marine reserve every year. If you don’t arrive before 9:30am on a fine summer weekend, you will miss out on a carpark and will have to join the increasing number of cars parking along the access road.

In the absence of fishing, rapidly increasing crayfish and snapper numbers were the first obvious indication that the marine reserve was beginning to work. By about 1980, five years after the reserve was created, crayfish numbers were becoming spectacular. Large snapper were beginning to accumulate just out off the beach. Normally shy of divers and not often seen, snapper followed divers and snorkellers around just off the beach, hoping for a free meal. Hand feeding the fishes was becoming a popular activity, not only for snorkellers and divers, but also people wading out off the beach into knee-deep water.

Even local fishermen, originally strongly opposed to the reserve, were starting to notice that it was becoming easy to catch fish just outside the marine reserve. After a number of years this ‘spill-over’ effect, where snapper stray over the marine reserve boundary and are then available for fishermen, was beginning to boost fishing opportunities in the Leigh area.

Crayfish numbers continued to increase in the reserve, with something like 40 times as many crayfish per kilometre of coastline in the reserve compared to the unprotected coastline elsewhere. Not only were the crayfish far more abundant, but also many of them were very large. As a general rule larger fish and crayfish produce disproportionately higher numbers of offspring. A 10 kilogram fish, for example, will produce a lot more offspring than five, two kilogram fish. So the potential for the marine reserve to start acting like a ‘stud farm’, producing larvae and young to help boost numbers even a long way from the reserve, was beginning to show up.

Big fishes tended to accumulate in the marine reserve, where they could grow old and large because they were not being removed by line fishers and spearfishers.

In the last few years, however, problems are beginning to arise. In some ways the marine reserve is being ‘loved to death’. In visitors eagerness to interact with marine life, the practice of feeding the fishes reached a stage where it was affecting the behaviour, social structure, and health of the fishes. And after a busy day, uneaten food remained floating around in shallow water and polluting the beach.

Because of these problems, and the fact that feeding the fishes constitutes interference and is technically an offence under the Marine Reserves Act, the Department of Conservation decided to actively discourage people from feeding the fishes – a practise which was tolerated for many years because people obviously enjoy it. Signs have been erected discouraging people from feeding the fish, and explaining why it is not a good idea.

But a more alarming trend is also recognised. Poaching of fish and crayfish from the marine reserve has become a serious problem. The Department of Conservation has decided it is time to become proactive and do something about the problem, which is beginning to erode some of the special values of the reserve to the marine life and to the public enjoyment of the area.

In a joint operation between the New Zealand Customs Service and the Department of Conservation in mid February, the team netted four poachers in the marine reserve at Leigh.

One diver was caught taking a crayfish from the reserve. The other three were casting fishing lines into the reserve from their boat anchored just outside the reserve’s boundary.

A snorkeller was also caught spearing a snapper in the reserve, but later ran off while details of the incident were being written down. The offender left his weight belt and wetsuit, and DOC and Customs officers are following up the case.

The offenders face fines of up to $10,000 and three months imprisonment, as well as confiscation of gear and boat. A high price to pay for a crayfish.

But the real price is paid by the marine environment, as well as by the thousands of people who visit the reserve every year to enjoy swimming with large snapper and other fishes, and marvelling at the big crayfish in the reserve. People have become very protective about the reserve, and get very upset about their enjoyment being spoiled by a selfish few who knowingly break the rules.

I suppose in a way the problem is a demonstration that marine reserves are working. When people find it so difficult to catch fishes and crayfish elsewhere that they are tempted to take them from a marine reserve, then perhaps the fishing rules outside the reserves are not delivering the goods?

In 1999, the Department of Conservation wrote to dive schools, clubs, newspapers and magazines, following a spate of incidents of divers in the reserve ‘handling, disturbing and interfering’ with crayfish.

Some supervised dive school students claimed they were never advised by the dive school of the exact restrictions in the marine reserve during their dive course. There have been other reports of dive instructors actually smashing up kina to bring in large snapper to impress their students.

I believe dive schools have a responsibility to instill in their students a respect for marine life and the marine environment, a respect for marine reserves, and an understanding of the reasons for and respect for fisheries regulations generally. I’m sure that by far the majority of dive instructors follow this ethic, but the recent arrests are a timely reminder to everyone that the rules are there for a very good reason. They are designed so that there will be plenty for future divers to see and enjoy.

If we want a good future for the marine environment, and a future where there is actually something left to see, it is time to review attitudes to marine reserves, and fisheries regulations generally. Do you know anyone who bends the rules? Can you have a word in their ear and try to convince them that what they are doing is unfair, destructive, and is simply ‘not on’?

If we all smarten up our act there is every chance that marine reserves will provide the way to a wonderful future, with spectacular underwater sights and experiences for our children and generations to come.

Reading of interest: Goat Island Marine Reserve.  Check details in our Store.

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