New Zealand Could Soon Protect One of World's Most Biodiverse Marine Areas

Bill to safeguard Kermadec region waters would advance global push to protect 30% of ocean by 2030

New Zealand Could Soon Protect One of World's Most Biodiverse Marine Areas
humpback whales
The Kermadec/Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary would protect a key resting point for humpback whales migrating between Oceania and Antarctica.
Amelia Connell

In 2015, then-New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced his commitment to protect the waters surrounding the Kermadec Islands by creating one of the world’s largest fully protected marine areas. Located in the South Pacific, approximately 1,000 km (621 miles) northeast of New Zealand’s North Island, these islands are teeming with life, from resident sea turtles and sharks to migrating dolphins and whales. For millennia, this ocean region has been pristine, but it could face threats in the future from human activity, including resource exploitation and climate change. Today, the legislation that could counter those threats and finalize this major victory—the Kermadec/Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary bill—is awaiting debate in Parliament.

Remote and largely uninhabited, the Kermadec Islands are notable for their distinct geological and geographical features, and blend of tropical and temperate waters. The region includes the world’s longest chain of submerged volcanoes, the second-deepest ocean trench—which bottoms out 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) beneath the surface—and a network of deep-sea corals and hydrothermal vents that supports a dazzling array of marine life. In fact, these rich waters are home to 431 species of fish, 6 million seabirds, three types of endangered sea turtles, and more than 250 species of coral and aquatic invertebrates. Much of these waters are virtually unexplored, and future study will likely reveal new rare marine species.

This unique ecosystem also serves as a pit stop for dozens of migratory species, including the Oceania humpback whale—a subspecies scientifically known as Megaptera novaeangliae australis. The whales travel between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and the warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean, where they breed. Humpback whales return to the same mating grounds each year and communicate using songs that are unique to their specific breeding location. Scientists recently discovered that migrating humpbacks exchange these unique “songs” while socializing at the Kermadec “rest stop.” This never-before-seen behavior may be driving the transmission of songs eastward across the South Pacific, and facilitating what scientists call cultural convergence among the whales.

Currently, only 0.4% of New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is protected. The proposed large-scale marine protected area (MPA) would expand the current Kermadec Islands Marine Reserve, extending the boundary from 12 nautical miles around each island to the 200 nautical-mile limit of New Zealand’s EEZ surrounding the Kermadec Islands. Although the exact size of the MPA has yet to be finalized by Parliament, the current proposal of about 620,000 square kilometers (240,000 square miles) is more than twice the size of New Zealand’s land mass.

The establishment of a large-scale MPA around the Kermadec Islands would not only protect marine life, but also honor the islands’ cultural and spiritual significance to two northern iwi (Maori tribes)—Ngāti Kuri and Te Aupōuri. Ngāti Kuri have historic and territorial rights, known as “mana whenua,” over these islands, and have served as one of the primary advocates of an expansive MPA. Under the current proposal, both tribes would have ongoing representation in conservation management strategy discussions.

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy project is committed to working with local stakeholders, including iwi (Maori) people, scientists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), community leaders, and government officials, to secure increased protections for the Kermadecs' waters. Over the past 10 years, Pew has helped sponsor numerous expeditions, host the first Kermadec science symposium, and support an exhibition on the Kermadec Islands by a group of leading South Pacific artists. Pew continues to help facilitate the amplification of Indigenous voices advocating for stronger marine protections.

As the Kermadec/Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary bill awaits discussion in Parliament, the election of a new parliament in October 2020 may provide renewed focus on expanded marine protections and an opportunity for progress toward the expert-recommended goal of safeguarding 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. With this designation, the federal government, alongside iwi and other citizens of New Zealand, could safeguard 15% of the country’s exclusive economic zone, preserve marine life, improve ocean health, and recognize the multitude of ways that these waters are linked to both the ancestral culture and the health and well-being of future generations.

The new sanctuary would join a growing number of Pacific MPAs, including the Coral Sea Marine National Park, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Palau National Marine Sanctuary, Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area.

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project will continue to work closely with Ngāti Kuri, scientists, and local NGOs to amplify public support and bolster government efforts to designate a large-scale fully protected MPA in the Kermadec region. This designation would be a significant step toward meeting global goals to safeguard at least 30% of the ocean through fully protected MPAs by 2030 in the hope of ensuring a healthy and sustainable ocean for generations to come.

Ashleigh Cirilla is a senior manager with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.