Managing New Zealand's marine environment

Wave. Credit Dave Allen, NIWA

We are researching how ecosystem-based management of the marine environment could be implemented in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

New Zealand’s marine estate is 20 times larger than our land mass, and we have the 4th largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world. New Zealand’s marine resources include fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, oil and gas, minerals, renewable energy, shipping and more. 

The sea is also an important part of the New Zealand lifestyle and culture – for food, recreation and spiritual well-being. 75% of New Zealanders live within 10 km of the coast, and Māori connections with the sea are particularly strong. 

There is a growing conflict between New Zealand’s many uses of the marine environment, including its important marine economy and protection of the marine environment. 

Current legal framework 

The legal framework applying to the management of New Zealand’s marine area is complex and fragmented.  At least 20 pieces of legislation apply to the marine environment and many different central and regional government agencies are responsible for administering the law and managing the marine environment. 

New Zealand’s legislation was developed for a range of different purposes (e.g. marine mammal protection, conservation, regulation of fisheries) and there is no consistent management approach across all the different types of legislation. Some legislation was first passed over 50 years ago.

There are also some Acts which only apply to a particular area of New Zealand, such as the Fiordland (Te Moana o Atawhenua) Marine Management Act 2005 which applies only in Fiordland.  Some provision has been made for Māori customary rights and those under Te Tiriti o Waitangi /The Treaty of Waitangi in the marine area but these have yet to be fully resolved and may result in additional place-specific management arrangements.

Together, this means that New Zealand’s marine environment is not managed holistically.  At the same time, there are increasing pressures on the marine space and its resources.

Ecosystem-based management

Ecosystem-based management (EBM) involves managing the marine environment in a holistic and inclusive way so that all the competing uses of the environment are managed in a way that does not degrade the marine environment.

We have proposed 7 principles of EBM for Aotearoa New Zealand with input from Māori and stakeholders.  

Does New Zealand law need to change to implement the principles of EBM? 

For example, the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) provides for some partnerships with Māori. It recognises connectedness, cumulative effects and a wide range of human values.  It provides for the establishment of environmental bottom lines and decision-makers can draw on a wide range of knowledge.  It also places positive obligations on agencies to monitor the state of the environment. 

The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement provides more specific direction on how the RMA is to be applied to the marine environment.

The Fisheries Act 1996 provides several valuable customary management tools to enable, to some extent, the application of tikanga and mātauranga Māori in defined marine areas.  For example, it provides for mātaitai reserves which are managed by a kaitiaki/tiaki through making bylaws to manage fishing activity. Mātaitai are normally closed to commercial fishing. 

For more information see: 

However, no legislation fully incorporates all seven principles of ecosystem-based management. 

For example, although the Fisheries Act references broader marine environmental considerations, management largely focuses on implementing a single “stock” management framework based on the concept of maximum sustainable yield.  This approach does not recognise ecological complexity, ecosystem connectedness or the impact of cumulative stressors.  The Fisheries Act also does not include statutory public participation processes which means it is out of step with other environmental legislation in New Zealand.

The EEZ and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 is weak on ensuring a healthy environment, with the legislation giving environmental matters no particular priority over economic benefits. 

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A web-based interactive tool tracks how floating plastic waste moves around New Zealand's coastline. Initially designed as an educational tool for schools, the Ocean Plastic Simulator also has potential for environmental and biosecurity monitoring, and aquaculture.

Blue Economy theme: co-development and funding update

If you're interested in being involved in co-developing our core research projects and/or want notifications about our Innovation Fund then email