Kia ora kōtou katoa.
Firstly, thank you for the invitation to speak today.
The Environmental Defence Society’s contributions towards environmental policy are invaluable, and alongside that your work in identifying and analysing issues and potential solutions are fundamental in driving transformation.
My colleague Minister Parker, who outlined the Government’s environmental reform agenda yesterday, and I are working together on many key areas given the strong overlaps between the environment, oceans and fisheries, and conservation.
Like him, I’m happy to do what I can to give things a bit of a kick along!
We all know we are at a defining moment in time. Biodiversity continues to decline, a signal that we need to do things differently, so it’s great to see the topics covered by the conference reflect a wide range of environmental uses in the context of sustainability – from land and ocean use, to resource management and tourism.
I’ve been asked to speak to you today about the Government’s conservation reform agenda. I’m also taking the opportunity to introduce Conserving Nature, a brand new EDS report which has been released today, which provides insight into the key issues surrounding our conservation legislation.
But before I discuss the report, I will first outline some of the work already underway.
This Government has an ambitious reform agenda
As Minister Parker outlined, this Government is working on the biggest change to the environmental management system in a generation. The work we are doing to reform the Resource Management Act, address climate issues through the Zero Carbon Act and establishing the Climate Change Commission, the Essential Freshwater package, and the ocean and fisheries reform programme – these will all make a real difference for nature.
For now, I am focussed on improving biodiversity protection and restoration as outlined in the current agenda: implementing the Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy/Te Mana o te Taiao, reviewing Stewardship Land, working towards a sustainable whitebait fishery, protecting and restoring oceans, and supporting on-the-ground biodiversity work and communities through Jobs for Nature.
What are we aiming towards for conservation?
It is estimated that between $1.5 and $2 billion per annum is spent by central and local government to support biodiversity activities – and this doesn’t include biodiversity spend or volunteer hours from non-government groups. It’s clear that biodiversity is very important to us, and we need to make sure we’re making the biggest possible impact for nature through our actions.
The Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy/Te Mana o te Taiao was released last year. It provides a bold direction for the future of biodiversity in Aotearoa, and sets out a roadmap over the next 30 years to achieve this.
The vision of Te Mana o te Taiao is te mauri hikahika o te taiao – “nature is vibrant and vigorous”. This involves thriving ecosystems and indigenous species, enrichment of people’s lives through connection to nature, and space for tangata whenua to exercise their full roles as rangatira and kaitiaki.
Something that sets Te Mana o te Taiao apart from previous strategies is the recognition that people are a part of nature, not separate from it.
We all know that magic feeling of being, how shall I put it? – ‘one’ with nature.
By improving the health of nature, we also improve the health of people. There are many benefits of increased and thriving biodiversity – from cleaner water and a stronger response to climate change, to our wider social, cultural and economic wellbeing.
The initial focus for the implementation of Te Mana o te Taiao is progressing work on getting the system right – something that has been recognised as a stumbling block for protecting and restoring biodiversity.
But we also need to achieve some real, tangible wins for biodiversity in short and medium term, as we work to implement the strategy.
Great progress has been made in this area over the last term of Government, and momentum must be maintained.
Many stewardship areas across New Zealand are home to threatened species and high-priority ecosystems.
This Government is committed to progressing the reclassification of stewardship land, which since 1987 has been put in the too-hard basket. It’s important this land is given its correct classification according to the conservation and cultural values present, so that we make sure the land has its correct protections for our kids and our grandchildren.
We intend to progress legislation to streamline, speed up and simplify the process so land with conservation value is identified and managed appropriately, while land with low or no conservation value can be considered for other uses.
Our freshwater ecosystems, which are home to taonga species such as whitebait and eels, need attention too.
Fish habitat improvement has been advanced by Government freshwater policy aimed at enhancing the health of our waters, recognising te Mana o te Wai, and protecting wetlands and aquatic biodiversity. We’ve also created specific obligations for councils to provide for threatened species, by setting limits in freshwater management and improving fish passage.
Our Government has also invested through Jobs for Nature in work to improve fish habitat and to invest in riparian improvements, including some specific work on inanga spawning protection.
You would have seen that we have taken a step towards a sustainable whitebait fishery, with new whitebaiting regulations in place for the 2021 season. We aim to continue improving whitebait management over the long term, again so our kids and grandkids can know the joys of a whitebait fritter. Or two!
Protecting and restoring oceans
As you would have heard from this morning’s session on oceans and fisheries reform, we know that our oceans – also home to many taonga species – are under pressure. The framework for managing our marine environment can be complex and fragmented.
There are many perspectives on these challenges and how they could be resolved to meet New Zealanders’ expectations around healthy and productive oceans. I look forward to the upcoming release of the EDS report on Oceans Management as a valuable contribution to this discussion.
As a first step towards improving the protection and restoration of oceans, the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries and I have recently released Revitalising the Gulf: Government action on the Sea Change Plan. It is a bold Government Strategy for the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park which commits us to action which will revitalise this treasure.
The actions include increasing the area under marine protection in the Gulf from 6.6 percent (including the existing cable protection zone) to 17.6 percent. Government will also introduce a range of changes to fishing practices and catch limits to restore fish abundance.
The strategy sits alongside other Government initiatives such as the Essential Freshwater package and the Productive and Sustainable Land Use package.
Government intends to move quickly to implement the Strategy’s actions. This includes delivering New Zealand’s first area-based Fisheries Plan in 2022 and the new marine protection initiatives in 2024.
Other work on protecting our marine environment includes establishing a network of marine protected areas off the southeast coast of the South Island. In 2020, DOC and Fisheries New Zealand sought public submissions on the proposed network of MPAs. The 4,056 submissions received have now been published to the DOC website and are being analysed.
Then there is Marine protected areas reform, an element of the initial Oceans and Fisheries work programme I will be working on with Minister Parker. This seeks a more strategic, nationally coordinated framework for marine protection with modernised legislative tools and processes that improve integration with wider marine use.
Jobs for Nature
There has been a step-change in the way conservation work is funded due to Budget 2020, which allocated $488 million to DOC as part of the Government’s $1.219 billion Jobs for Nature programme. It will create thousands of nature-based job opportunities throughout Aotearoa over four years – supporting both social and environmental outcomes, and is supercharging the conservation efforts of DOC, iwi and hapū, councils, and the wider community.
As at the end of July, 200 projects have been approved – totalling $439.27 million of investment over four years – with a range of outcomes including pest and predator control, riparian fencing and planting, threatened species protection, and habitat restoration.
Expected to deliver 5400 roles over their lifetime, they have been selected based on an investment framework that includes regional economic need, training, project readiness and enduring conservation outcomes. This will ensure that the Jobs for Nature funding will deliver conservation benefits that are aligned to the goals of Te Mana o te Taiao and that these benefits will endure beyond the four-year funding period, bringing on a whole new cohort of skilled conservation staff.
That skilled workforce is fundamental to the long-term sustainability of the programme and conservation outcomes.
For example, the Predator Free NZ Trust Conservation Ambassadors is training kaitiaki rangers in key conservation skills. The Predator Free Apprenticeship Programme, run by the PFNZ Trust, is training 51 apprentices in predator control across the country with the aim of establishing careers in pest management.
Another example is the Iwi Collaboration for Kauri Action initiative in Northland. It has received $3.5 million over 3 years to create up to 50 jobs in a region of high unemployment, and brings together 4 iwi partners to help stop the spread of kauri dieback disease across half of Northland’s kauri forests.
So far, DOC-funded Jobs for Nature projects have created jobs for 1215 people and undertaken an additional 401,429 hours of conservation work.
The next phase for Jobs for Nature is to focus on programme delivery, to monitor conservation outputs and project achievements against milestones to ensure the continued success of the programme.
The Conserving Nature Report
And looking further ahead, EDS’s Conserving Nature Report outlines challenges we need to address to achieve our conservation goals
The Government’s significant reform agenda, and the work I’ve outlined on Te Mana o te Taiao stewardship land, protection and restoration of freshwater and ocean ecosystems, and Jobs for Nature is a great start towards addressing the biodiversity decline.
The true measure of success will be how these programmes are implemented on the ground, and so it is essential that communities, tangata whenua and the environmental sector are involved in the changes and can help to support them.
I want to acknowledge the excellent thinking already underway by environmental organisations on the challenges we face for nature, and how we might go about addressing them.
‘Conserving Nature’ is a great accompaniment to the topics you have been discussing at this conference. I want to extend my thanks to Deidre Koolen-Bourke and Raewyn Peart, who authored this report, and to the wider EDS team for supporting its development.
Conserving Nature provides a comprehensive reference point for the history and context of the issues surrounding conservation legislation. It highlights many of the issues with our current conservation legislation and builds a strong foundation for Government to consider these issues in the future. I welcome the second phase of the EDS project, which will look at options for law reform.
I want to talk in a little more detail about a couple of the report’s key findings and the implications they have – our conservation legislation has not been kept up to date, and it doesn’t allow us to respond well to new and emerging threats to biodiversity.
Current conservation legislation is outdated
The current legislation often doesn’t reflect the importance of nature for cultural, social and economic wellbeing, with much of it written over forty years ago, before I was born!
We’ve changed a lot as a society since then. Today, we have much more holistic understanding of nature and its importance for our cultural, social and economic wellbeing. We’ve also come a long way towards understanding how to reflect and uphold the Treaty of Waitangi.
In the past four decades our understanding of ecosystem science and climate change has also evolved, but again our legislation has not. We aren’t well equipped to deal with some of the biggest emerging threats to biodiversity today – invasive species, climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and fragmentation of landscapes and ecosystems.
We need to approach conservation management and planning in an agile way. However, this often isn’t possible due to inconsistencies across different pieces of legislation in how species and habitats are managed, purposes that don’t align well, and rigid statutory processes.
There are significant pressures on our current legislation
Te Mana o te Taiao was informed by a broad range of people, groups and organisations. They told us what isn’t working and what needs to change.
Overwhelmingly, people commented on the need for updated and improved systems and processes to enable better protection and restoration of biodiversity – particularly in terms of legislation.
One of the goals for 2025 is to review natural resource legislation to ensure it is effective and comprehensive, recognises cumulative effects, and ensures ongoing biodiversity protection, including climate resilience.
The current legislation can also fail to adequately recognise the rights and interests of Māori. The Wai 262 inquiry and subsequent Kō Aotearoa Tēnei report highlight opportunities and challenges in key work areas such as customary rights and protecting mātauranga Māori, rangatiratanga, and kaitiakitanga.
Other recent reviews and reports have looked at possible improvements to the conservation system via both legislative and non-legislative changes, including the PauaMAC5 2018 court case, the review of the governance of Fish and Game New Zealand, and reports relating to the future of tourism.
So where do we go from here?
We need to continue progressing our current agenda, which will ensure there are benefits on the ground for biodiversity as soon as possible. Other issues are more complex and will take longer to work through.
I’m looking forward to the presentations and panel discussion coming up next – I’d like to hear your thoughts on key priorities for making improvements to conservation legislation.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak today. I’m excited about what the future holds for ensuring that nature and people can thrive in Aotearoa.