Published on 6 September 2018

Lessons from the Leigh and Long Bay trips

As part of a paper on marine protected areas (MPAs) that I'm taking this semester, we went to Leigh and Long Bay to experience two of the most iconic no-take MPAs in the country. It was a great opportunity to experience first-hand the impacts of these two reserves but also to learn about the challenges and difficulties they are currently facing. Plus we were lucky enough to attend great talks by marine conservation legends Roger Grace and Tony Enderby among others. What follows is a report that I wrote to sum-up the lessons and findings I got from the trips.

Group photo at Leigh

Group photo at Leigh Discovery Centre with legends Roger Grace and Tony Enderby on the left.

The no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) of Long Bay-Okura and Cape Rodney-Okakari Point are, for several reasons, two very different examples of marine conservation initiatives in New Zealand. To understand their current situation and the challenges they face it is necessary to know their origins. The Long Bay-Okura marine reserve was established in 1995 in a stretch of coast adjacent to a regional park and the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point, also known as Leigh or Goat Island marine reserve, was the first MPA created in New Zealand, back in 1975. The Leigh reserve was declared twelve years after being proposed and its conception triggered a long legislative process (Ballantine & Gordon, 1979) that culminated with the creation and parliamentary approval of the Marine Reserves Act (NZ Government, 1971), the piece of legislation in which all marine reserves in New Zealand are cemented.

The Leigh reserve was born purely out of scientific needs. An existing laboratory managed by the University of Auckland provided the appropriate seed for the establishment of the MPA. The scientific community was pushing for a pristine marine environment where research could be conducted with little human interference and the Leigh reserve was the answer to their demands (Ballantine & Gordon, 1979). Since its inception, a significant number of studies have not only provided evidence of the positive ecological outcomes of the reserve but also of its substantial economic and social benefits (Ballantine, 2014; Costello, 2014).

Despite of its entirely scientific background, the popularity of the Leigh reserve has exponentially increased and it is estimated to receive around 300,000 visitors each year (Department of Conservation, 2016). Not only has it become a valuable recreational asset for the public but also an educational tool to raise awareness among New Zealanders (Ballantine, 2014). The Leigh marine reserve has the privilege to host the Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre, an educational facility showcasing research activities of the Institute of Marine Science of the University of Auckland. It is an ideal place for both adults and kids to learn about the marine environment in a fun and compelling way. Experiencing Marine Reserves, a charity programme committed to bring the benefits of MPAs to all New Zealanders, has reached out to more than 45,000 teachers and students through their school plan (Experiencing Marine Reserves, 2002), which includes a practical approach through snorkeling which has proved to be very popular among kids.

Goat Island

Goat Island. Photo by Kaiwhakahaere at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The growing popularity of Leigh seems to positively influence the enforcement of the rules as the majority of the public is aware of the no-take limitations in the reserve. According to DoC Biodiversity Ranger Thelma Wilson, a positive behavioral change has been occuring during the last 10 years at Leigh, with most of the current land-based offences being perpetrated by “new New Zealanders” as they are often unaware of the rules, likely due to cultural and language barriers. But the increase of the popularity of Leigh carries certain challenges that the Department of Conservation (DoC) and the rest of the reserve’s stakeholders need to face; insufficient infrastructure, damage due to the crowds and pollution through beach littering.

The Leigh reserve initially faced strong opposition but claims made by the public and the fishing industry have proved wrong throughout the years (Ballantine, 2014). Thanks to its ecological recovery, Leigh has become a nursery for several species in the Hauraki Gulf region, benefiting both commercial and recreational fishing, especially through lobster “spillover” effects (Kelly et al., 2002) and snapper larvae dispersal (Le Port et al., 2017; Le Port et al., 2014). However, poaching is still a challenging issue that both DoC and the Ministry of Primary Industries are in charge of managing.

Continuous monitoring at Leigh has shown that certain species do not enjoy full protection as the area of the reserve is not large enough to encompass all their movements. The insufficient size of the MPA and the increased fishing efforts outside of it are the causes of the decline of such species, particularly snapper and rock lobster (Department of Conservation, 2016). As a result, an extension of the reserve has been proposed and included in the SeaChange Hauraki Marine Spatial Plan (Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, 2017), an ambitious project that for a variety of socio-political reasons currently seems to be on-hold.

Constituted in a different set of circumstances, and located within the urban area of the city of Auckland, the Long Bay-Okura marine reserve attracts more than one million visitors each year (Auckland Regional Council, 2010). According to DoC Marine Ranger Gabrielle Goodin a high proportion of these visitors are unaware of its no-take status, again likely due to cultural differences and miscommunication, resulting in management difficulties for both DoC and Auckland Regional Parks staff.

The fact that the reserve is in the middle of a highly developed area brings the best and worst of human influence. On one hand the reserve is highly supported by the local community, a key stakeholder in the establishment process of the reserve and the park (Long Bay-Okura Great Park Society, 1996). The sense of ownership by locals helps raise awareness and provides the reserve with endless hours of voluntary restoration and monitoring work. When visitors numbers increase during the summer months, other agencies staff like lifeguards and police officers also help educating the public on the beach. On the other hand, sedimentation and pollution, alledgely due to development, might be negatively impacting the reserve, in particular its shellfish populations (Department of Conservation, 2018; Long Bay-Okura Great Park Society, 2015) although this yet needs to be proven. The lack of action from the council and DoC on the pollution front causes a great deal of frustration to locals, aggravated by the fact that complaints and poaching reports often take too long to be attended. But the harsh reality is that DoC resources are limited. Marine Ranger Gabrielle Goodin is responsible for the daily management of all marine reserves in the Auckland region, a gigantic task for a single officer that is only available during regular office hours.

Like the Leigh reserve, Long Bay-Okura has its own educational centre. The Sir Peter Blake Marine Education and Recreation Centre (MERC) is a non-profit offering educational and recreational activities to schools and other organisations. Due to its privileged location, the centre is able to provide a hands-on experience to students, with a particular attention to intertidal habitats in the rocky reefs near the centre (MERC, 1990). Being so close to the city, the Long Bay reserve has become the perfect place for young New Zealanders to connect with the ocean, with MERC providing a great first-time marine experience for many of them.

Long Bay-Okura has also been the target of a series of ecological assessments. In 1990, before the area became a marine reserve, the Auckland Regional Council commissioned two surveys to assess the marine biota and the benthic conditions of Long Bay (Grace, 1990a; Grace, 1990b). These surveys have provided useful baseline data to compare posterior surveys performed in 2002 and 2011 by DoC, which proved the effectiveness of the reserve as significant increases on the population of local species were detected. Unfortunately no more studies have been done since 2011. Further surveys should be carried since Long Bay-Okura provides a perfect environment to study human development impacts on marine ecosystems.

Both Leigh and Long Bay-Okura are great examples of the effectiveness of no-take marine reserves and the clear benefits they provide in terms of ecological restoration and conservation. Due to their unique location and surrounding environments, both reserves have proved to be great places to conduct research, provide educational resources and generate economic and social benefits well beyond the purely scientific scope. Although human pressure through different activities is definitely affecting them, the reserves seem to enjoy a great deal of support from local communities and stakeholders. Hopefully this support ensures their viability, expansion and protection in the future, and where agencies can not provide the appropriate resources, community-led initiatives may step up to help fill the gap.


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