The Challenge

Sustainable Seas

The objective of the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge is to enhance utilisation of our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints. 

We have recently released our core research project portfolio for Phase II (2019-2024). 

New Zealand's marine environment

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. 

A list of the key pieces of legislation is here  

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.

Principles of ecosystem-based management

Ecosystem based management 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. 

Ecosystem-based management is already used by some countries and organisations to manage marine environments. 

The Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge is researching how ecosystem -based management could be implemented in New Zealand. 

Does New Zealand law need to change to implement the principles of ecosystem-based management to the marine area?

Some areas of New Zealand  law already incorporate some of the principles of ecosystem-based management.  

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 Exclusive Economic Zone 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. 

Our strategy 2019-2024

The Challenge was established in 2014.  Funding for all National Science Challenges was allocated for ten years in two five-year periods.  Phase 1 will be completed on 30 June 2019. 

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) undertook a mid-way review of all National Science challenges in July/August 2018. You can download a copy of the Sustainable Seas report of the Review Panel below.  

As part of the mid-way review process we submitted our strategy for 2019-24.   The strategy describes the areas that will be covered by the phase 2 research programme explains how governance and funding works.  

The Minister of Research, Science and Innovation has confirmed the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge will receive $39.8 million for the second five-year phase of the Challenge.  Funding will start on 1 July 2019.

Our Phase 2 Research timetable is available here  


Latest news and updates

Phase II research project portfolio

We are pleased to release the Phase II Core Research Project Portfolio for 2019-2024. 

Interview with Jeroen Jongejans, Dive! Tutukaka

Jeroen Jongejans represents the Aotearoa New Zealand marine tourism industry on the Sustainable Seas Stakeholder panel. We asked him his thoughts on the Challenge’s progress to date.

Survey seeks views on Māori marine enterprises

We want to hear from people who work with, or for, marine-based Māori enterprises, particularly those involved in commercial, customary or recreational fishing.