A natural history

The 30th anniversary of the Ka¯ piti Marine Reserve holds more than just a story of a place. It’s one of people, of community and of land, sea and spirit coming together, writes

Rosalie Willis.






Established in May 1992, the Ka¯piti Marine Reserve was just the fourth in New Zealand to be established, following the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve in 1975, Poor Knights Islands in 1981 and the Kermadec Islands in 1990. With Ka¯piti Island being one of New Zealand’s most important nature reserves, it connects to the marine reserve, providing a corridor to the mainland of land and sea, protected from pests and human pollution. HISTORY A baseline survey was done around Ka¯piti Island in 1992, before the reserve was established, identifying the habitats, quantities and size of fish and other species present. This enabled any changes measured and identified. Chris Battershill, who led the survey said, “The state of marine protection in the 1990s was parlous, not so much in terms of the numbers of protected areas, but in terms of their size. “The survey was designed to establish a baseline dataset for fish, kina, pa¯ua and reef habitat biodiversity/ structure on both sides of the island and in areas that would become marine protected areas together with comparable areas that would remain outside of protection. “Ka¯ piti was important and only the second temperate marine offshore island protected area for New Zealand (the other being the Poor Knights Islands), areas that are heavily fished/ visited.” “It was one of the largest at the time and is still one of the largest,” Guardians of Ka¯piti Marine Reserve chairman Ben Knight said. “With it being so early in New Zealand’s history of marine protection conversation, at the time it was a nationally significant and quite contentious public and political conversation.” The reserve has played a role in protecting biological communities in Ka¯ piti, but just as significant is the role it has played in developing conversations about marine protected areas and how to manage coastal marine areas nationally. IN THE RESERVE to be Some of the species and habitats protected, while not as charismatic as dolphins and whales, are rhodolith and anemone beds. Rhodolith beds are plants that form a pink, calcium-based structure on the sea bed. Some form like round boulders and as they get older, they grow bigger, building up a structure in the same way coral reefs do. “This can have fingers and lattice framework to it and can be quite deep, providing shelter for juvenile fish species which are really vulnerable to natural predators,” Ben said. “They’re effectively habitatforming, providing a place for other things to shelter and reside in.” Around the island are the largest known rhodolith beds in the country which the marine reserve plays a large role in protecting. Their presence in the marine reserve is an indicator of good ecosystem health. Habitat-mapping has also shown large areas of white striped anemones, extending for hundreds of metres across the seafloor. Though anemones are common in New Zealand, their occurrence in such large areas, blanketing the seafloor, is very unusual. “These are just two of the quite unique and distinct habitat types that have been identified as being present around the island, protected by the reserve.” On the northern and western sides of the island, there are also pinnacles and rocky reefs which form dive sites regularly visited by recreational snorkellers and divers. “Above the sea, at the north end there is a hole that you can kayak through, and there is also the famous undersea cabin, known as the hole in the wall, which you can dive through.” Since the original surveys, Ben said all the common fish species found in the area are growing with the supply increasing. “When there were submissions about the reserve back in 1991-92 there was a growing awareness that fish numbers were getting depleted. “The locals came to support the idea of a marine reserve because they knew that in the long run, it would actually replenish the wider area.” In the reserve are all the common species — such as crayfish, pa¯ ua, kina, blue cod, butterfish, blue moki and copper moki. “What’s beautiful to see is that now in the reserve we are increasingly seeing a lot more of these common species and they are growing in size.” Chris, who has done three more surveys of the area since the baseline, the latest in 2019, said it is clear that previously targeted fish species are in much higher abundance inside the protected areas now. However, he said they were at their peak within the central part of the protected areas, so there is still evidence of some impact of fishing at the reserve edges on both sides of the island. “Crayfish, kina and especially pa¯ ua have come back in very good numbers and sizes inside the reserve. “There should be spillover effects, but fishing pressure around the reserve is fairly intensive so any benefit would be hard to calculate unless recreational fishers recorded their catches.” Jonathan Gardner, Victoria University Professor of Marine Biology and Guardians trustee, said though there was typically twice the number of fish inside the reserve as outside, the overall number of fish had reduced over the years, which is being found all around the country. “The Ka¯piti Marine Reserve has done what it is supposed to do, we’re on a 2:1 ratio outside:inside but the absolute numbers have dropped which is worrying. “This is a general observation which is being found all around the country, fishing pressure is still resulting in a decrease in numbers and population sizes for highly targeted species inside and outside the reserves.” MANAGEMENT From 1996 to 2007, the management of the reserve was looked after by a management committee made up of eight seats, four dedicated to the local iwi and four to other noniwi based stakeholders. Though it took a number of years for the management committee and management plan to get going, Ben said it led the way in terms of what best practice looked like for marine reserves. “The work the management committee did was really impressive — making sure the vision of the community was properly implemented. “The plan anticipated the issues which we now have and had policies in place to mitigate those problems and challenges until it was unceremoniously dumped in 2007. “The management committee and plan they had is still a really good template for how I think mana whenua would like to be on an equal footing with other organisations and entities in the management effort.” The work of the committee included getting a boat out at the island, putting boundary markers up, getting maps and education materials out to the public and creating a monitoring plan for science and research in the area. It was also an opportunity for individuals involved in the early days to establish themselves, with many of them going on to work for NIWA and regional councils, and further their scientific studies. “We now have 44 marine reserves in New Zealand and part of this is due to the success of Ka¯piti Marine Reserve which is still one of the biggest.” The Guardians of Ka¯piti Marine Reserve now support DoC, local iwi and the community in looking after the reserve by educating the public, being the eyes and ears for DoC, and have been involved in a number of projects such as installing webcams on Ka¯piti Island to monitor the area for illegal fishing. However, Chris member of said that without Turver, a foundation the committee, the committee, poaching and illegal activity was increasing. “The island ranger no longer has a suitable fast boat and the ranger at Mana who does is blocked by weather and tight budgets.” He said though the Guardians were doing their best, there needed to be more done by DoC to stop poachers. THE FUTURE OF THE RESERVE Though the ban on fishing in the area has given a chance for the world underneath the water to recover over the past 30 years, there are still external factors impacting it. Sedimentation from land movements such as construction on Transmission Gully, and property developments on the coast, has moved into the marine area. “While the reserve provides a greater degree of resilience, it doesn’t stop sedimentation settling on the marine reserve any more so than it stops litter and plastics entering the area too,” Ben said. The Guardians of Ka¯piti Marine Reserve Trust officially formed in 2017 after locals wanted to be able to do more to advance and promote the conservation and protection of the reserve and surrounding marine environment. “It can’t just be DoC who is doing all the work, there should be other agencies combined with councils and the community to help look after it.” For Jonathan, another concern is the ocean floor being overcome by kina barrens as the kina’s natural predators — snapper and lobster — are being overfished, slowly allowing the kina to flourish and seaweed to be overtaken. “This can be catastrophic because there is so much kina that they are grazing the algae and we are losing kelp forest,” Jonathan said. “Our system here in Ka¯piti is not as degraded as some of the other reserves around the country which now have a big issue on their hands, so we have an opportunity to stop this before we reach the point of no return.” In 20 years’ time, Ben hopes Ka¯piti is not one of two marine reserves in the Wellington region, but one of many. “This means the coastline would be much more abundant and success would be defined differently.” Success for Ben looks like fish that were depleted such as groper now being back in the reserve, with recreational fishers now able to catch them outside the reserve. Looking forward and with the greater region in mind, Ben would like to see the likes of southern right whales back along the coastline and organisms that are no longer in Ka¯ piti back in large numbers. Jonathan would also like to see more reserves around New Zealand and the current ones increased in size. “This would cause a lot of protest but I believe it is something we as a country need to start looking at, we need to consider what we are going to leave behind for our grandkids.”