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What’s happening at Mimiwhangata? (Part 1)

As published in Dive New Zealand magazine, August/September 2002 issue

Mimi-who?? Mimiwhangata! Gem of the Department of Conservation’s Northland estate. On the east coast between Whangarei and the Bay of Islands, Mimiwhangata Coastal Park is about an hour’s drive past Whangarei. Straight out to sea is the distinctive outline of the Poor Knights Islands.

In March 2002, I was approaching the end of the fish transect at Grey Rock, noting down the last of the fishes I had been counting along the 50-metre line. It was a long time since I had visited this area. This was the first fish monitoring here since early in 1986. Now, 17 years later, I was checking to see if there had been any noticeable change in fishes and crayfish since that time. If the Mimiwhangata Marine Park was working, I would expect a substantial increase in crayfish and fishes on the numerous transects I had established in this area way back in 1976.

As I reached the end of the line, I went a little further and off to the right to check a particular hole to see if my "mate" was at home. I carefully peered around the rock and there, at the entrance, was a small spotted black grouper, hovering outside his lair gently fanning his large black pectoral fins.

RVG__30_11_2006_KBlackSBG_2.jpgThere is something about spotted black grouper lairs which make them attractive to others of the same species even long after the previous occupant has left. The detailed geography of the rocky lair is critical to its suitability for grouper. It probably also determines the size range of grouper it is suitable for. In this case, the rock forms a narrow dark tunnel with two entrances for a quick escape, or quick return to the lair. The same configuration is common for spotted black grouper lairs at the Kermadec Islands, where the grouper grow LARGE. The difference is only one of scale, the lairs of large grouper being like a scaled-up version of this little lair here at Mimiwhangata.

Very pleased to see that a grouper still occupied this hole, we climbed aboard and moved on to the next site, determined to get at least one more site documented today.

A complex history preceded the present status of Mimiwhangata Park. In the middle of Ngatiwai territory, the land has a long pre-European history of cultivation, establishment of headland pa, and even a sizeable massacre. More recent history saw the land purchased by New Zealand Breweries, later to become Lion Breweries, in the 1960's.

Initial intentions of the Breweries were to establish an international golf course, prestigious hotel, and exclusive coastal playground for the world's rich and famous. But the Chairman of Directors, Sir Geoffrey Roberts, had a different idea. He saw Mimiwhangata as something of immense value to New Zealander's and far too valuable to squander on an extravagant international playground. He commissioned a series of reports on the ecology, archaeology, and marine life of the area, and encouraged the Breweries to investigate ways of opening up the property as a farm park, as a gesture of goodwill to the people of New Zealand, and to link this to a marine park in the adjacent waters.

In 1975 a trust was set up, consisting of Government and University officials, planners, and representatives of the owners, to administer the property, and to follow up moves towards the creation of a coordinated land and sea park. A monitoring programme, funded by the Breweries, was established in 1976, to follow long-term changes in marine life as an aid to management of a future marine park.

Lion Breweries generously opened up their property to the public as a Farm Park in December 1980, but numerous political and administrative obstacles to the Marine Park proposal appeared. Basically the people of Northland were suspicious of the Breweries motives and would not accept their genuine offer to manage a coordinated land and sea park, freely available to the people of New Zealand, at no cost to the Nation. An Environmental Impact Report was produced, with a lot of public discussions and consultation, and was duly audited by the Commission for the Environment. The audit recommended that administration of the Park complex be handed over to the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park Board.

Frustrated by years of "head bashing" and getting their "teeth kicked in", Lion Breweries finally decided to swap Mimiwhangata for a piece of Crown-owned real estate in Wellington, and Mimiwhangata passed into public ownership. At that point maintenance of the property took a serious downturn. For the next few years little was spent on the property, and fencing, buildings, good farming practices, and plant and animal pest control programmes were allowed to run down. Possums raged out of control and killed several old pohutukawas on headlands where they had grown for hundreds of years.

The marine monitoring programme showed that, following opening of the park to the public, many abuses of fishery regulations occurred. Many sackloads of kina were taken away from newly accessible areas, and the incidence of illegal removal of oysters sky-rocketted.

Despite these problems, the Marine Park was finally established in 1984. Commercial fishing was immediately reduced to long-lining and cray-potting, which was allowed to continue for another 10 years. The Marine Park allows recreational fishing and shellfishing for types of marine life which can stand some fishing pressure, but prohibits the taking of species which would be depleted rapidly even by a small amount of fishing. The intention of the somewhat complex fishery regulations was to tightly control recreational fishing to certain methods and species, and to protect everything else.

In 1994 the Park Ranger tried to bring a prosecution over illegal removal of paua from the Marine Park. This opened up a can of worms. Legal interpretation of the Fishery Regulations showed that, although certain species could be taken by certain methods, due to sloppy drafting of the regulations other marine life was NOT protected. This made a farce of the Marine Park, and its regulations were basically unenforceable.

Effectively what we have now is a Marine Park in which no commercial fishing has occurred since 1994, but recreational fishing continued with limited but unenforceable controls. Thus we have an opportunity to test the effects of recreational fishing in the absence of commercial fishing.

The results may surprise you.

An analysis of the results, and ideas for the future direction of Mimiwhangata, will be presented in my article in the next issue of Dive New Zealand.

 

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