Wade Doak: Islands of Survival hold key to saving seas

* Wade Doak has been diving for over 50 years and is the author of 18 books about the sea.

In this article Wade proposes a new approach to to coastal management, where tourism plays a key role in managing our fisheries.

During voyages in the Pacific with Dr Walter Starck on his undersea research ship El Torito we studied traditional fishing techniques wherever still evident. We were surprised to find a group of atoll-dwellers who live as much in balance with their environment as did the Aborigines, Eskimos and other stone age societies.

This is not because they are smarter than us, but because of the dictates of a harsh world: selection has favoured those who get it right ecologically.

In such situations, we have found man has an ecological niche and can survive without injuring his environment. Those who got it wrong were eliminated.

From the fishing methods and living patterns of the Luaniuans (who have survived on an atoll for 800 years with their fish community largely intact), I believe we can learn a great deal which can help our techno-society achieve the same ideal. Atoll-dwelling Polynesians offer us the key to inhabiting Earth island.

These days around most Pacific Islands fishing stocks have been seriously depleted. Wherever there is commercial fishing exploitation of wild stocks beyond local needs, demand soon exceeds supply.

We are all too familiar with the result. Today few people earn a living from fishing the stretch of Northland coast where I live, because there's just not sufficient fish any more. On most Pacific Islands these days the staple diet is canned fish, canned meat and imported white rice, with severe health effects.

So I am offering from our study of the islanders' survival systems, the basis for a new approach to coastal management.

It has already been suggested that we zone our coastline just as we zoned our cities and countryside. In Queensland the Government has created fisheries habitat reserves. These conservation areas are intended to offset the debt owed to the sea for the loss of so much strategic coastline to industrial development.

In Europe such areas are called marine natural parks.

In my scenario for coastal management my working title has been Islands of Survival, although they may well be termed "Marine National Parks" - areas of high recreational value, usually rocky, highly indented coastline like the Tutukaka Coast out to the Poor Knights Islands [virtually Whangarei to Bay of Islands], or protected harbours such as the Hokianga, which are often of low value for commercial operations.

Within such areas up to 12 nautical miles offshore, I suggest a special type of fishing licence be established which would enable local fish populations to maintain healthy levels. This would be part of a national drive to support more people in rural areas.

It would be essential that biologists be consulted to limit the number of special fishing licences, giving priority to applications from existing local licences and charter-boat skippers.

Park fishermen would have rights to controlled, sustainable fishing in the area (perhaps twin hook hand-lining and such like but no set nets or seines!) and would make the decision themselves to restrict fishing in critical areas of the park to rehabilitate fish stocks.

The skills of the fishermen, their knowledge and expertise, would be integrated within the park. They should also be permitted to have their boats surveyed for charter work. Tourists would pay to catch their fish for them and then eat it at a local restaurant.

In catering for the tourist traffic the fisherman and his family would be able to balance their impact on the fish population by spreading their economic demands seasonally.

We have learned the hard way that exploitation of wild populations cannot be sustained as high-level export earners. In marine natural parks fishermen's co-operatives would market fish only within the park locality. This would be conditional on holding such a licence.

In this way seafood restaurants at tourist resorts could offer New Zealanders on holiday a wide range of fresh seafood delicacies at reasonable prices. In maintaining their livelihood, park fishermen would have a stake in protecting natural resources which equal the public interest.

To further enhance tourism and advance education, selected areas within these fisheries habitat reserves would be set aside as total no-take areas, as with our present marine reserves, which were originally designed and legislated for scientists.

These new recreational marine reserves would be cloned off the immense success of the Leigh Marine Reserve, which now attracts excessive crowds because of its uniqueness; and which offers the public glass-bottom boat tours, superb snorkelling and scuba diving amidst dense reef fish populations, and to fishermen, both recreational and commercial, a fish recruitment zone which spills over into adjacent areas, enhancing both sporting and economic values in the area.

An over-fished stretch of coast is like an overstocked paddock - with the existing situation nobody gets any benefit from our empty seas. If I extrapolate the changes I have seen in 50 years of diving, I can only say that our seas are dying.

The stories of older fishermen will bear me out - marine communities are in decline and drastic measures are needed. The creation of Islands of Survival or marine parks along the New Zealand coastline would be to everyone's benefit.

How long will it be before we quit our ungoverned rape of the sea and start to husband its resources wisely?

Fish have values in many ways. A fish in the wild could be regarded as having multiple values.

Alive, in a viable marine community it has a value to glass-bottom boat viewers, snorkellers and scuba divers. Educationally, students of all ages need to experience a thriving reef scene: I call it a wet library, an essential amenity for any school.

Ecologically, as part of an ecosystem, a fish influences other life forms and communities, such as large snapper controlling urchin barrens or leatherjackets acting as bottom disturbers and diversifiers.

These omnivorous fish have a major influence in promoting the mosaic of encrusting life on the rock face because they create new spaces for settlement as they browse indiscriminately - much as the wood pigeon spreads the seeds of forest trees.

Genetically a fish has value to its gene pool. Large fish, as survivors, show selective value and should be spared for breeding and with females, for large volume egg production.

As a catch, against the market in Tokyo, a fish caught in a marine park such as I propose and marketed locally, would have value to the local community: as food and as a major health source.

If caught by proxy from a licensed charter boat such a fish has value as a tourist attraction.

Then, downstream, attracting marine-oriented tourists, this fish has value to the local accommodation, restaurant, travel trades and to the home-based artefact culture.

For iwi, on special social occasions, community consumption of fresh kaimoana has very important cultural values in which many pakeha have shared.

Once a reputation for high-quality seafoods was spread internationally the benefits could be considerable to all of New Zealand. With its clean, green image, New Zealand already has a propensity for such a reputation, if we set out to earn it.

I note that tarakihi currently on sale to the New Zealand public is exported to China for processing and re-imported. It is not good quality: it is pallid and smells fishy.

With seafood, freshness is of the essence. It should be caught locally and consumed locally and its conservation should be monitored locally. As it has a visual value while alive this has to be balanced by the community with its food value. With climate change, food miles are another important consideration.