I had the opportunity to live and work in New Zealand during the last two years. In some ways, I followed the path of the sooty shearwater, a sea bird off Santa Barbara’s coast which arrives in our region to feed on fish and squid. They can dive up to 68 meters for food, and often follow whales to catch fish on the surface of the sea. These birds breed in large numbers on the islands of Aotearoa, or “the land of the long white cloud,” the Māori term for New Zealand.
The flight and long voyage of the sooty shearwater or tītī in Māori is one that is shared by the great number of species, including the albatross. These birds speak to us of how much the world is changing, and also of how similar we all are.
I traveled to New Zealand to gain a better understanding of the needs of Pacific Ocean marine life. While New Zealand and California are separated by a vast ocean, we are connected in many ways. One example is the link between migrating sea birds that depend on marine areas across the Pacific. Our consumption of fish landed in New Zealand is another. The impacts of human activities in one country may have larger-scale impacts across the great ocean. We are of the Pacific: We are all caught in the same net of life and the same moment in history.
New Zealand is the sea bird capital of the world, and not only that but the 400 islands of the country include roughly half of the marine whales and dolphins of the Pacific Ocean. Marine scientists are just beginning to understand the biodiversity of these islands — only 5 percent of the ocean’s sea floor has been studied. It is truly a hot spot for biodiversity.
New Zealand also includes a rich cultural history. We can learn from the early inhabitants of maritime cultures of Aotearoa. The Māori have inhabited New Zealand for nearly 900 years. One essential cultural value of the various Māori tribes is kaitiakitanga — the obligation of the people to protect the physical and spiritual well-being of nature. Each member of a tribe embraces kaitiakitanga; it is part of how the people cherish the values carried by the land, river, and sea. In reference to the marine environment, it denotes authority for the exercise of the stewardship obligation as deriving from the ancestors. Kaitiakitanga is also one of the primary principles found in the treaties that were signed by the British and Māori during the 19th century.
One of the challenges today is to respect this principle of kaitiakitanga. We are familiar with New Zealand’s “green brand” of 100% Pure — people travel to the country to experience the wild nature of the country. But this green brand is fading, and with it the principle of kaitiakitanga may soon be forgotten. There are roughly 4.3 million people in New Zealand, and the country feeds over 280 million people, producing roughly one percent of the world’s protein — primarily in the form of fish, lamb, and dairy products.
In the last 10 years, there has been a radical transformation of the pastoral landscapes of the country. The country is losing small family farms and ranches, and large multinational dairy companies have emerged. Agricultural areas are also being lost to new residential development.
There is in addition increasing demand for resources in New Zealand’s marine environment. Commercial fishers of the country produce roughly $3.5 billion worth of seafood; 95 percent of the fish is exported, primarily to European and Asian markets. The country is at the same time busy exploring its marine environment for minerals, and large areas are leased for offshore oil and minerals development. The Minister of Economic Development referred to New Zealand as the Norway of the South Pacific. Major offshore oil development will be part of the future of the country. There are few marine areas protected from resource use in New Zealand: Less than 5 percent of the country’s marine area is protected.
The history of coastal marine policy in the U.S. reflects a series of governmental responses to catastrophic oil spills. Perhaps New Zealand can learn from Santa Barbara and our history of maritime activity. A century ago, California was the world’s top producer of oil; the coastal landscape of southern California included thousands of onshore oil rigs. Offshore oil development began in Santa Barbara, California, in the late 1880s. As oil moved farther offshore, the ecological risks of industrial oil development intensified. The public’s perception of the risks, and fear of offshore oil development, also deepened. The memory of the 1969 Unocal oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel not only contributed to the development of coastal marine policy in the state. Over 40 years later, California is recognized as a leader in the development and implementation of policies and programs that embrace the management goal of coastal marine biodiversity protection.
Yet the crisis in the world’s ocean is much deeper today than it was recognized to be then: The decline in the health and integrity of the coastal marine environment should be recognized as a catastrophe. The decline of birds like the sooty shearwater is a consequence of human impacts on ecosystems. In fact, the level of coastal marine biodiversity loss is metaphorically akin to a silent spill. Unfortunately, society has yet to respond to social, economic, and ecological factors contributing to large-scale degradation of marine ecosystems. The United Nations notes that one in four marine mammals could go extinct during this century.
Major change in how we relate to the ocean is needed.
The green brand of New Zealand is a double-edged sword. It represents an opportunity for the country to create policies and programs that support the brand — or a liability, with respect to the potential economic fallout if the country fails to live up to the brand. A major spill in New Zealand could have significant impacts on sensitive birds and marine mammals. Yet, the country has no comprehensive ocean governance framework. For instance, oil companies do not need to assess the risks associated with oil exploration or development, and there are no environmental assessments required to develop marine areas. Plans for commercial fishing activities poorly consider issues such as bycatch, or the impacts of fishing on marine birds and mammals.
Ultimately, marine resource use across the Pacific should be made more compatible with maintenance of biological integrity. This is not merely a management issue of planning for sustainable use, maximizing resource allocation or yield, or balancing competing interests for resource use while protecting coastal marine areas. The challenge is to integrate resource use across a coastal marine area while prioritizing large-scale biodiversity preservation, so that the use of the area can be sustained across generations. Protecting biodiversity requires a deeper vision across the Pacific; it requires that we begin to understand the needs of the sooty shearwater, and the fact that we are often increasingly dependent on one another — despite the distance between us — to sustain our common future.