Tipping point: Non-word of the year

Sitting in an environment court is an experience of its own. I would know. For the last two weeks, I had the opportunity to be present in a case around the island of Motiti.

The indigenous people, represented in the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust (MRMT), sought protection for their ocean, their coast and reefs. It´s been a process that has lasted for nine years and finally, after a lot of base work, the MRMT could make a proposal in court. A proposal of how to protect and restore the area and the biodiversity of the marine space around Motiti.

The presented concept is based on both cultural and ecological values and aspects. Over the last centuries, the indigenous Maori identified several reefs and coastal areas as “Wahi Tapu”, areas of high cultural value that should not be infringed by humans. In modern words: No take zones, no fishing, no boating, no access within 1 nm. This size is not just a good guess, but based on the recommendations by several ecologists the MRMT has called to give expert evidence. “Bigger would be better”, to quote the renowned underwater photographer and marine scientist Dr Roger Grace, “but 1 nm around the Wahi Tapu is good to start with and learn from it.”

Around these Wahi Tapu, “buffer zones” are suggested which allow for appropriate utilisation of the marine space such as recreational fishing but are still not accessible for industrial fishing methods such as trawling or dredging. These buffer zones, called “Wahi Taonga” (treasure, gift in Maori language) protect the network of the Wahi Tapu. Nick Shears from Auckland University: “The mix of areas with `no-take` and `less take` is in accordance with international best practices such as the Great Barrier reef where 30 percent of the area is no take and the rest are restricted zones.” A concept that has been used on land in national parks for a long time by the way so it might come as a surprise that this is not the case in the ocean: Most of the marine reserves and marine reserve areas we sailed to, are only about 1 – 0,5 nm around the islands and therefore hardly protect the moving of species. But that is another story…

Di Lucas Landscape architects & associates
That´s how the suggested marine restoration area around Motiti could look like (c) Di Lucas Landscape architects & associates

So far, so good one might say.
Whereas there was no dispute that problems of biodiversity exist (as was mentioned many times before court), the Regional Council of the Bay of Plenty which was the opponent of MRMT kept on repeating one argument: The “tipping point” of the decline has not been reached yet. There would be still time to … do more research, do some advocacy and education campaigns, and maybe – some time in the future – to create a “perfect marine reserve”.

Kina are consuming ecklonia which provide food for fish ...
We went on a little survey around Motiti to get the status of the reefs: Kina are consuming ecklonia and therefore destroying the habitat small and juvenile fish need.

A 100% perfect marine reserve has yet to be invented, but even the smallest ones have positive effects – countered the ecologists. Yes, maybe, this area needs more research over the next years; maybe the proposal of the MRMT needs to be adjusted, but let´s do something and try out – they all said. Seems to make sense. Moreover, will there ever be enough research especially in a field so mysterious as the ocean? Aren´t there always new things to find out, to make the puzzle complete piece by piece?

Let´s try out, learn by doing and restore our ocean during the process – recommend the ecologists.
The Council though has a different approach: Wait, wait, wait, do research and see.

It has been the approach over the past 15 years or so – and nothing has changed. At least not for the better:

Hapuku used to be abundant in the Bay of Plenty but is now functionally extinct.
The indigenous Groper/ Hapuku used to be abundant in the Bay of Plenty. The chart shows its decline.

Tipping point…

After seven days in the environmental court, I cannot hear the word anymore. It is a ridiculous concept anyway. Even Sharon DeLuca, the ecologist the Council called in, had to agree that “we never know when the tipping point occurs”. This said we do not even know if the tipping point has been reached or not. Tipping points have only been identified as such in hindsight. Maybe, in a couple of years time, we find out that the tipping point for crayfish has happened in 2017. But what does this help in 2020, when no crayfish can be found anymore?

Crayfish versus Kina Barren
Crayfish versus Kina Barren: These crayfish are too small to eat the kina barren.
Cray2 is the area Motiti belongs to. The decline is visible.
Thousands of craypots are littering the ocean around Motiti. Cray2 is the area the island belongs to, where the declining catch per unit of effort (CPUE) has left the fisheries in a degraded condition. Nowadays, 5 pots are needed to catch 1kg of legal fish.

We do not have time at all. We have to act now!

The latter is actually the obligation of the Councils here in New Zealand as well. In the Regional Management Act, it says that the “maintenance of the biodiversity” is part of Councils duty. But what can you maintain when there is nothing of it anymore? For me, “tipping point” seems nothing but an excuse to drag a topic and wait till someone else is in charge to fight the fight.

It is a concept that is totally opposite to the idea of “kaitiakitanga” of the Maori which understands its obligation to preserve their culture and their nature for future generations. In the indigenous viewpoint, both are connected: Once a fish like the Hapuku around Motiti, that used to be significant in abundance, has been fished to the edge and now isn´t found in the environment anymore, the community cannot maintain the relationship with the Hapuku any longer. “Culture is in danger because of the dying biodiversity they are connected with”, summarised His Honour Judge Jeff Smith of the Environment Court the problem quite clearly at the beginning of the case. That´s easy to see in hindsight, but then it´s too late.

Tipping point or no-tipping point, it shouldn´t be the question. We cannot afford to fight over right or wrong. We have to act now to protect what´s left of our cultural as well as of our natural values and to give the ocean space to restore itself!

There is good news: Ten percent of the big fish still remain; half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape – a jewelled belt around the middle of the planet. There are still places in the sea as pristine as I knew as a child. Our ocean is at a tipping point, which means we still have a chance to tip things back in the right direction – if we act now.” (Ending this with an optimistic quote of the American marine biologist, explorer, author and lecturer Sylvia A. Earle

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