UPDATED: Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary – Expert reaction

The Kermadec Islands and surrounding ocean – one of the Pacific’s most diverse and pristine marine environments – is to be protected from all forms of fishing and mining.

Aerial view of Raoul Island.The Prime Minister’s announced the proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary this week at the United Nations in New York. More information, including a Q&A, is available on the Beehive website.

The new sanctuary will extend out to the 200 nautical mile limit of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Kermadec Islands- covering a total area of 620,000 square kilometres. All forms of resource extraction will be prohibited.

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting.

Assoc Prof Mark Costello, Institute of Marine Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“It is marvellous news and the government should be congratulated on it. It is also one of the less impacted areas of our EEZ. The fauna and flora are unique.

“I look forward to similar initiatives to protect other habitats in New Zealand’s EEZ that are not represented in the Kermadec’s.”

New comment: Prof John Thompson, Wold Family Professor in Environmental Balance for Human Sustainability, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, comments: 

“Whenever you designate a large piece of land for a single use — whether for agriculture, resource extraction or preservation as a park — you’ve made a very firm commitment to that piece of land. If you’ve done that in full knowledge and understanding, then that may be the correct decision. Otherwise, you run the risk of scoring an own goal down the track by limiting the options for other economic or human activities.  It’s important to remember that different activities use different amounts of the land base, or seafloor in this case, and focused resource extraction using less than 0.1% of the seafloor may be compatible with preservation of 99.9% of the area.

“For marine areas, especially the deep ocean, we don’t have the same knowledge base about resource potential or the risks of resource extraction that we have on land.

“This is an enormous area that has been set aside, which is a great gesture of preservation for humanity. However, I hope that the decision has been made with a balanced view of the needs of humanity. We have a growing global population in need of basic standards of living, a standard of living sufficient to give the majority of people enough optimism for the future to stay in their home country.  Balancing global issues and need for resources with national and local issues represent complicated decisions and choices  I’m concerned that the decision to set aside such a vast area might have been made without consideration of our limited knowledge if the area and the options and choices that it offers for the future.”

Prof Jonathan Gardner, School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University Wellington, comments:

“Today’s announcement of the establishment of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is a big and brave decision by the New Zealand government, for which they ought to be congratulated. The Kermadec region is an exceptional place and is very much in need of protection before large scale exploitation really commences.

“This decision provides meaningful protection for the marine species and ecosystems of the Kermadec region, as well as providing certainty for conservationists, the fishing industry and the mining industry. As a contribution to large scale marine conservation the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is globally important.”

Dr Malcolm Clark, Principal Scientist – Fisheries, NIWA, comments:

“The new Sanctuary covers a very large and diverse area of ocean northeast of New Zealand, spanning tropical to sub-tropical waters, and depths from the sea surface to over 10 km at the bottom of the Kermadec Trench. The area has a high diversity of habitat types, including active undersea volcanoes, seamounts, ridges, deep seabed basins, oceanic islands and the trench. These support a huge range of organisms, some of which are known only from the Kermadec region, such as those associated with hydrothermal vents, and some of which use the area as an important migration route (such as whales moving between Antarctica and the Pacific Islands).

“The declaration of a sanctuary provides secure protection from direct human activities for the marine life in the area, adding to previous measures such as fisheries-related Benthic Protection Areas. The area has not been thoroughly surveyed and scientifically sampled, so there is still much to learn about the biodiversity and the structure and function of the ecosystems in the region. It is of considerable scientific interest because of the diversity of habitats, the biological connections afforded by the chain of seamounts extending northeast up to Tonga, and the gradients in oceanographic conditions.

“Given its protected and largely unmodified state, the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will continue to be an important area for scientific research on the natural marine environment, and how future ocean climate change may influence New Zealand and the wider Southwest Pacific.”

Dr Kevin Faure, Director of the Geological Resources Division at GNS Science, comments:

“Geologically the Kermadec arc region is very interesting and presents a unique opportunity world-wide for marine geoscience. GNS Science and its international partners plan to continue doing research in this area.  Our research focuses on geological processes related to the formation and geological evolution of the region, volcanism and hydrothermal activity.

“These are important for understanding geological hazards associated with volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides and earthquakes, and geological processes such as fluid-rock interaction that is critical forunderstanding how minerals are formed in these environments.  The area that has been made into a marine sanctuary has copper- and gold-bearing minerals, however, the amount of ore present is unknown.”