Our Marine Environment

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New Zealand lives and breathes its ocean. It’s the core of our identity, survival, quality of life and even our economy. Tangata whenua have a strong affinity to the ocean, and it’s vital to all the people of New Zealand. Despite its strong significance across all facets of our lives – our beloved oceans are in a dire crisis.  

The Ministry for the Environment’s new report confirms the staggering state of our marine environment. The numbers are alarming but hardly surprising, and it’s due to the combined impact of our activities on sea and land. It’s clear New Zealand needs better marine management and climate mitigation to sustain our deteriorating natural environment.

The report finds our coastal waters have been warming by 0.2 degrees on average, per decade, and we’re experiencing unprecedented marine heatwaves. Our oceans act as a buffer against the effects of climate change by absorbing the sun’s radiation and atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, the efficiency of this may be compromised with rising ocean temperatures as the rate of uptake decreases with warming water. This makes it difficult for scientists to predict how much carbon our oceans can absorb.

The ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide is also increasing in acidity, and as a result, shellfish including oysters, pāua and mussels are increasingly becoming threatened. These species rely on calcium carbonate to build their shells and exoskeletons. Ocean acidification reduces the availability of the essential minerals required for shellfish to survive and reproduce effectively.

Shellfish are not the only species that are under threat; 22 per cent of marine mammals, 90 per cent of seabirds and 80 per cent of shorebirds are threatened with, or at risk of extinction. New Zealand’s most endangered bird, the fairy tern now has a population of around 45 individuals and continues to be threatened by habitat loss and predation.

Marine areas need to be more effectively protected and managed to improve their resilience to issues such as ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution. Currently New Zealand only has 44 marine reserves in its territorial waters – leaving less than half of one per cent of our oceans unprotected. Marine reserves provide the highest level of protection for our marine environment, and Our Seas Our Future encourages the establishment of More Marine Reserves to protect our diverse ocean environment.  

Plastic is pervasive in our oceans and is having a direct impact on our marine wildlife through ingestion, entanglement and suffocation. It’s reported as one of the most commonly found forms of beach litter and ingested by marine life, including fish, shellfish, seabirds and is now part of our food chain. Plastic acts as a “sponge” for environmental pollutants such as industrial chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, and can act as a vector for invasive species, disease and bacteria. Plastic Free New Zealand aims to raise awareness of these threats and advocate for environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic.

Many might argue our nation and its environmental impact is a tiny fragment of the global population, but we can’t use this as an excuse for inaction. Per capita, New Zealand has the largest methane emission rate (0.6 tonnes per person, per year) and it’s also the largest contributor to New Zealand’s national greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill only proposes a methane reduction of between 24 and 47 per cent by 2050, and its plan to reduce farmer’s emissions in five years is not the answer.

We have a responsibility to take Climate Action Now and take the lead on cutting carbon emissions. By not taking more immediate and quantifiable action, we’re contributing to an environmental crisis that will only get worse before it gets better.

New Zealand has more than double the number of threatened seabird species than any other country and almost half of the world’s cetacean species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) have been recorded in our waters.

Backed by accurate scientific research, government regulation and policies go a long way in setting us in the right direction. Legislation and government initiatives including Zero Carbon Bill, phase-out and banning of microbeads and some single-use plastics, and recycling schemes have made some progress in helping to improve the quality of our natural environment.

We’ve also seen local businesses play a fundamental role in our battle against environmental destruction with an influx of organisations pledging to be carbon neutral, offsetting their carbon emissions or implementing voluntary environmental policies.

Despite these initiatives, government and business initiatives can’t (and don’t) set the climate, pollution, and environmental conservation agenda alone.

We, as individuals, have significant power and environmental responsibility too. Collectively, our everyday decisions have an enormous impact on the environment and are at the backbone of business and government decisions. Without the majority of consumer support, businesses and the government wouldn’t follow suit.

If we want a genuine chance of saving our home and our oceans (and its critters), the decisions we make now are crucial. You can contribute to a healthier marine environment by making more informed choices such as choosing Sustainable Seafood Now, reducing your plastic usage or getting involved in one of our beach clean ups.

We’re all stewards of our marine environment, and how we treat our environment now will shape the world we are living in tomorrow; the health of our seas is intertwined with our future.

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