Meaningful dialogue the key to resolving Kermadec impasse

The debate over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary has drawn predictable battle lines, with environmental interest groups blaming Te Ohu Kaimoana for collapsing political support of the Government’s proposal to create a marine protected area twice the size of New Zealand.  

Te Ohu Kaimoana opposes the sanctuary but the issue is not simply black and white.

Given the high public interest in this issue, it’s important that our view is understood by New Zealand.  Te Ohu Kaimoana applauds and supports sensible marine management and applauds initiatives that protect the seabed and allows for the growth of fishstocks and other biodiversity.

Which is why, in our role as kaitiaki, we (Māori and industry) instigated extensive measures across the whole Kermadec zone – banning bottom-trawl fishing, and had this regulated by Government in 2007.  As a result of this action there are now no material threats from fishing to the seabed biodiversity in the Kermadec region.  These are not the actions of people opposed to conservation. 

So why then do we oppose the Government’s Kermadec proposal?  

Because Māori have rights in the Kermadec region guaranteed by the 1992 Fisheries Settlement with the Crown, which never sought Māori consent to having these rights extinguished.  This point of contention relates to poor process by the Crown – criticism that even Government Ministers concede.

Secondly, and more importantly, iwi and Te Ohu Kaimoana believe the biodiversity of the Kermadec region can continue to be protected without imposing a blanket ‘perpetual no-take’ approach.

Māori fish to sustain our communities.  Whether directly with food at the whanau or marae level – or through the economic benefit that our fishing businesses provide at the iwi level.  As an organisation whose role it is to protect that 1992 Settlement, Te Ohu Kaimoana is concerned about the economic consequences of banning fishing from parts of the ocean.  But contrary to how some environmental interest groups would seek to portray iwi, that is not the only thing we are concerned about. 

We understand that conserving the marine environment enables New Zealanders to continue utilising its riches now and in the future.  But there are many ways to protect things than just banning their use forever.

Iwi do have significant interests in commercial fishing.  We don’t hide that fact, nor do we resile from our stand that we wish to see those interests protected.  But this does not mean that we are the puppets of industry or simply a ‘fishing industry lobbyist’, a convenient label used by those who disagree with us.

Iwi Māori are conservationists for the purpose of sustainable use – customary, commercial, and recreational.  And our rights to go fishing are enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi, which is the foundation on which the 1992 Māori Fisheries Settlement was agreed.

We know there are challenges.  The fishing sector must improve its practices if it is to gain public confidence.  No-one likes the idea of fish being dumped at sea whether accidentally or deliberately discarding (legal or otherwise).  Such challenges can be overcome and we are working with the Ministry for Primary Industries to meet those challenges.  It’s in the interests of our entire nation that we have a fishing industry that conserves the resource from which it operates.

I cannot tell you why our government clings to the view that the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary can be only one thing, with no room for a Māori perspective of conservation and sustainable use.  But I can tell you that ignoring Māori rights and our worldview in regard to environmental management is not good governance for Aotearoa.

Recently WWF called for marine protection to have the Treaty at its heart.  I agree.  Because to me it means that iwi Māori views regarding the use of our environment must be actively sought and accommodated – not just given scant recognition. 

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary impasse won’t be solved through patronising suggestions for Māori to gift our rights to the nation and it won’t be solved by cheques being ‘wafted in front of our noses’, as one commentator has opined. The key to resolving the impasse is embedded in meaningful dialogue, and one which would deliver a better process for Marine Protected Areas policy in the future.

The politicisation of fisheries and marine policy is unhelpful but it doesn’t mean that the opportunity for meaningful and sensible conversation is gone. I don’t believe that the Prime Minister and others have invested so much political capital in making promises to the international community that they cannot step back and reassess their actions.

I have faith that the Māori Party can get the Crown to listen to the messages that iwi have been trying to communicate since the Treaty was first signed – that our view of the world matters, and it’s enshrined in a document signed by our ancestors, those who forged the way ahead between Pākehā and Māori.  

For Te Ohu Kaimoana, our door is always open.