Is New Zealand achieving its ocean conservation targets?

By Laura Griffiths

Marine protection in the form of ‘no take’ areas (marine reserves) and other protection tools is essential to restore ecological integrity and deliver ecosystem services. However less than 10% of New Zealand’s coastal seas are set aside as no take zones and the majority of these (96%) are located on remote offshore islands.

a reef with a fish
A rocky reef. Photographer: David Bradshaw

Statistics from Stats New Zealand (Marine protected areas: Tier 1 statistic 2015) reveal that less than 0.4% (618 km2) of coastal mainland New Zealand is protected in ‘no take’ marine reserves (referred to as Type 1 Marine Protected Areas (MPA)) (see the Table). Similarly, 1.2% (2,170 km2) receives partial protection in Type 2 MPAs which prohibits all forms of bottom trawling and dredging. If you include areas of rare or outstanding biodiversity in New Zealand’s offshore islands (Kermadec Islands and Subantarctic Islands) the figures bump up to over 12% (22,115 km2) of the coastal area protected in Type 1 and 2 MPAs (i.e. out to 12 nautical miles from shore).

Table: Areas (km2) of marine protected areas in coastal marine biogeographic regions (within New Zealand’s 12 nm Territorial Sea). 

Bioregions of Coastal New Zealand Type 1


Type 2


Mainland NZ East Coast South Island 111
East Coast North Island 29
Fiordland 103 381
North Cook Strait 30 241
North Eastern 89 898
South Cook Strait 39 139
Southern South Island 11 89
West Coast South Island  174  96
West Coast North Island 32 326
Subtotal 618 2,170
Offshore Islands Chatham Islands  –
  Subantarctic Islands 9,332 2,516
  Three Kings  –  –
  Kermadec Islands 7,480
  Snares Islands  –  –
  Subtotal 16,812 2,516
Total 17,430 4,685

Source: Department of Conservation (2015). Marine protected areas: Tier 1 statistic 2015. Retrieved from

The MPA Policy 2005 targets “10% of New Zealand’s marine environment by 2010”. Thus it seems NZ is fulfilling targets set by the MPA policy and achieving conservation goals. But are they protecting all types of ecosystems?

Figures on the area protected are popular in politics because they provide a strong tool for political bargaining. But often they do not consider conservation targets.

The 2008 MPA Implementation Guidelines  recognized that area protected on its own was not a suitable target. Conservation should also try to aim to protect all types of ecosystems.

The 2008 guidelines put stronger emphasis on the concept of a representative and comprehensive network, rather than per cent protection to fulfil protected area obligations. The stated objective is to protect a “representative and comprehensive MPA network by 2020”. Representative is defined as protecting a ‘full range of habitats and ecosystems that are common and widespread’, while the definition of comprehensive, means that it encapsulates ‘centres of endemism and rare habitats and ecosystems’.

Source: Stats NZ 2016. NZ Environmental Reporting Series. Retrieved from Note: values for some categories too small to display.

Currently, of New Zealand’s 14 coastal bioregions identified in the MPA Policy, offshore islands are afforded over 75% protection, while the majority of mainland bioregions are afforded less than 1% protection (Figure 1). The proportions of these are hardly representative or comprehensive when significant weight is placed only on areas essentially ‘out of public reach’.

Community forums are now in place to propose MPA networks in their respective bioregions; with the majority of New Zealanders living along the coastal belt, resistance to the concept of ‘limitations on use’ is unavoidable.

The recent West Coast Marine Protection Forum process was an example of this as it was a lengthy, costly and resource intensive processes that resulted in small, isolated MPAs along the South Islands West Coast. Although considered a conservation win as it was the first form of official habitat protection for the area, it is questionable whether ecosystem function will be restored in these fragmented pockets.

It’s time NZ stopped trying to lead the race and put its resources into more pragmatic approaches to MPA development as being adopted by other countries. Zoning Plans which use an ecosystem based approach to manage their coastal seas appear far more effective and collaborative than the designation of small, isolated protected areas with little integrated management in between.

The creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia and the Wadden Sea Plan 2010 in the North Sea, are amongst those that are using more effective and comprehensive strategies to protect ecosystems that incorporate a threats based assessment. Integrated coastal management based on comprehensive zoning and threat management plans requires far more attention. Effort needs to be focussed on ecosystem management as a whole, not just on protecting isolated pockets of the ocean.

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