Motiti – as tranquil the island, just 10 kilometers off the mainland of New Zealand, is, it gained some unwanted fame: On October 5th 2011, the 236-meter-long oil-ship RENA grounded off the coast of the 40-inhabitant island. It was the largest environmental disaster in the history of the Pacific State: 234 tonnes of oil and waste contaminated the ocean and damaged the Astrolab reef, famous for its rich fish and biodiversity. A further 350 tons of oil was scraped off the island’s wild steppes over the coming weeks. 2,062 birds fell victim to the disaster. But as so often, disaster paradoxically had something positive. In order not to damage the already beaten reef even more, a fishing and diving ban was imposed within a radius of two nautical miles. The effect: Four years later, fish, marine life and plants were abundant. Free from the harmful influence of people, the sea life flourished.
All’s well that ends well? Far from it, because this is only the beginning. Four years after the catastrophe – and despite the fierce protests of some Maori groups of Motiti, including the “Motiti Rohe Moana Trust (MRMT)”, the wreckage of the RENA was still on the spot. In April 2016 the Astrolab including RENA was declared a dive spot. The government also refused to ban fishing within three nautical miles of the reef for the next two years.
“Since then, every man and his dog have been fishing on the rock,” complained Umuhuri Matehaere, one of the chairmen of the MRMT, “the reef is now in the same state as before.” Matehaere and the others alone could not and would not leave this alone. They went into the (expensive) fight in court. “We, the local communities, know our environment best,” he argues, “we should be able to co-decide what should be protected and how.” This environmental responsibility is in the Maori´s blood: they call themselves “Tangata Whenua” People of the country), consider themselves as managers and want to preserve their “Mauri” (life force) for the future generations. “While Western approaches are designed to take advantage of the ‘stock’ of a particular species for their own benefit, protecting the ocean means protecting our environment so that our cultural and spiritual relationship with the life force of the ocean can continue,” marine biologist Te Atarangi (T.A.) Sayers who is linked by 15 generations of whakapapa to Motiti Island explains the difference, “in contrast to the existing system, we ensure ecologically sustainable management.” Long-term usability instead of exploitation is the motto. That the latter is necessary was also recognized by the environmental court of Tauranga, Bay of Plenty.
On 5 December 2016, a precedent legal declaration was achieved: from now on protection zones could be legally established at a regional level and fishing-related activities could be restricted – within the regulations of the “Resource Management Act”. Given that the protection of biodiversity and the ecological as well as cultural preservation of the habitat were in mind. So far, such measures have interfered with other regulations of the New Zealand government such as the Fisheries Act. Despite an appeal of the government of New Zealand, the legality of the environment courts decision was confirmed by the High Court in Summer 2017. High Court Justice Christian Whata made important in-principle findings that the Resource Management Act empowers regional councils to regulate fishing to preserve marine biodiversity, significant habitats and aspects of Māori relationships with the ocean and taonga species. New Zealands biggest NGO “Forest & Bird” backed the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust case that regional councils can set policies, objectives and rules controlling fishing to avoid ecosystem damage and promote non-commercial relationships with the sea. “The decision confirms that the duties of Regional Authorities functions extend to the Coastal marine Area”, says T.A. Sayers. Councils across New Zealand can regulate fishing practices that risk damaging marine ecosystems. This has been demanded by regions such as Marlboro on the South Island for a while, and also Omaha at the northern tip of New Zealand will celebrate the decision: There, ejected fishing nets were the source of resentment among residents after swimmers were caught in it. The declaration would now open pathways for these local communities and environmental advocacy groups like Forest & Bird to pursue conservation in New Zealand’s territorial waters. “It’s good to have clarity that the RMA charges councils with managing the effects of fishing on the environment. But councils cannot make rules that impact on the sustainability of fishing resources – this comes under the Fisheries Act,” says Sayers. “We now know where the line is drawn, and on what grounds.” Similarly, the decision clarified that Māori interests in customary fishing were covered by the Fisheries Act, while the RMA covered wider cultural and spiritual connections with the sea, he adds.
With this important declaration, the indigenous people from Motiti model may not only change marine protection in their own country. New Zealand’s development could also encourage other nations to rethink their strategies as local coastal population all over the world face similar challenges. It would not be the first time: In March of this year, the Whanganui River had received personality rights as a world’s first river on demand from local Maori. Since then anyone can be accused of harming him directly or indirectly. Meanwhile, the concept has found imitators around the world: In Ecuador, Bolivia and India, similar efforts take place. Progressive scientists like Daniel Hikuroa from the University of Auckland can also see the recognition of the sea as a legal person.
In the meantime, the ocean needs strong safe guards that appreciate and understand the cultural, environmental and community values of the ocean. “The qualities are intrinsic values, Landscape values, Maori values, non-economic values”, T.A. says, “it will require that communities engage in merit cases in their respective region. The importance of the decision will still need to be realised by communities defining their values, connection and relationships that need protection, restoration and preservation.” The Maori of Motiti have already done this work. However, whether they are able to act as the stewards of their ocean, just as they want to be, remains questionable. The High Court declaration was appealed again end of July…
Obviously, the little island of Motiti will continue to write history.