Reasons for a no-take Poor Knights marine reserve

By Dr Floor Anthoni, director Seafriends, Leigh

Date 26 May 1997



An important decision on the future of the Poor Knights Islands is to be made soon. The minister has in the meantime been briefed extensively by the Department of Conservation and many others. He has visited the Poor Knights to see for himself.

This letter has been written because we believe that the most important issues have not been represented adequately. We have been following the process and have even made submissions. The matter looks complicated if one wants it to be that way. But the issues are straightforward when seen in light of the future.

What values?

In making his decision, the minister has to weigh up values held by those wishing to stop fishing and those wishing to continue it. Some have put forward the economic argument of how many dollars are involved in the various activities: Commercial fishing for income; Tourism paying for fishing; Dive charters diving for profit; Tourism paying for diving.

Less convincing are those who have no economic relationship with the Poor Knights. They come on their own accord for either fishing or diving. Their values are expressed as 'good diving' or 'good fishing'.


  • unspoilt wilderness
  • a unique place
  • a place to learn from
  • good diving
  • trend towards eco-tourism

But what value can we attach to imponderables such as an unspoilt underwater wilderness area; an area completely unique in the world; knowledge obtained from such an ecosystem; educational values resulting from this; the fact that we could look back in time to what our coasts were like when Captain Cook discovered this country?


  • Decide for our children
  • Take a long-term view
  • Set aside the very best areas
  • Areas threatened by over-use
  • Remote unspoilt areas
  • No-take before extraction
And who is representing the values of our children and those who have not been born? What will they choose? I believe the minister should hold a very long-term view and take this into account as well.

 We are a greedy and selfish generation. We are in fact so greedy that we think nothing of stealing from our children in order to satisfy ourselves - now. If we are going to set aside areas of the sea for our progeny, then should we consider the best or the worst? Is there any choice at all?

Setting aside the best areas means those where fishing is best, where staying is best, where nature is bountiful, where the waters are clear. End of discussion!

In fact, knowing that marine reserves create resistance and controversy, we should set the following two priorities: areas near populations that are threatened by overuse and remote areas that are still relatively pristine because few people get there and because run-off and effluent can't get there either. The other areas just take much more time and effort to turn into marine reserves.


Sustainability misunderstood

From the Leigh Marine Reserve we have learned a little about sustainability. Proponents for fishing at the Poor Knights, have not. They argue that a bit of fishing and marine conservation can go together. Let's look at Leigh.

In the late seventies the reseve would have drawn no more than 20,000 people per year. Since fishing has been stopped completely, the reserve draws now over 120,000 people each year, most coming to go in the water and look at the fish. So what is more important? Fishing or looking? Where is the bulk of support to be found? What is the trend? What is more sustainable?

Just suppose we changed the rules in the Leigh marine reserve a bit, allowing for some fishing. Can you just imagine the outrage? Can you imagine the damage done by 'floating lines without sinkers'? The reserve would simply cease to exist. How would we explain this to our children? Half a reserve is no reserve!

 The Ministry of Fisheries doesn't understand what sustainability is either. If the fish stocks are only 10 percent of what they were, then is allowing a quota to fish that stock 'sustainable'? Do we really like to 'sustain' a fish stock at a fraction of what it could (should) have been?

Likewise, fishing at the Poor Knights is not what it used to be. I have done experiments myself. I have observed the fishermen for days. They aren't doing well at all. What they catch today is less than 5 percent of what they used to catch. Do they really want to 'sustain' this stocking level?

    Floating line fishing:

  • lines are sinkered with swivels
  • reef fish is caught
  • jigging is common
  • fish are attracted from far away
  • fish move outside into vacant territory
  • old fish disappear
I have also observed a few more disturbing practices. 'Bait fish' is what they are allowed to catch with 'unweighted' lines. But they call any reef fish 'bait fish' since they do not eat them. They cut them up and use them for bait. I've tried floating line fishing myself since I have to catch fish for the Seafriends aquariums from time to time. I discovered that fish remove the bait much more easily from weighted lines than from unsinkered lines. An unsinkered line is just much more effective! I have also observed extensive use of 'jigging'.

 There's something else that is poorly understood about 'sustainability'. Essential to this notion is that nature has a built-in capacity to recover. It miraculously produces what was taken away. Fisheries statistics show that a fishery can rebound. What it never shows is that the big fish have gone. They never come back. Is a perfectly 'sustainable' fishery then also sustainable for old fish? Obviously not! Likewise all the old Black-spotted Gropers (and many more venerable species) have gone and they won't come back, even with only the slightest bit of fishing. Crayfish have never returned either.

Another ecological point is not clearly understood. It relates to the size of a marine reserve and fishing on its boundaries. Almost all the marine reserves we have created todate can't work ever because they are too small. How then is that possible?

The most obvious factor is that fishing on the boundary draws fish to the bait, from far afield. After an hour's waiting with a burley bomb in the tidal current, fish may come from many hundreds of metres away, even Kilometres! Many of the fish we treasure are fulltime or part-time scavengers. It is important for them to sense the bait before anyone else. Understandably they have a good sense of smell. They are also easy to catch for that reason. Those with the best sense of smell are caught first: Groper, Moray Eel, Conger. They are easily wiped out from large areas. Then follow the others.

But direct fishing is not the only threat. Once a fish has been caught outside the reserve's boundary, its territory becomes vacant, reason for another fish to annex it. Since fish are more abundant inside the reserve than outside, this causes a rapid outward migration, which never reverses. Fishing on the boundary remains better than anywhere else, for many years and for good reasons: it empties the reserve.

Now look at the puny areas at the Poor Knights that are so-called out of bounds for fishing. Do you really think that these could stop this outward migration? The islands are simply too small to allow for any amount of fishing.


What is so special about the Poor Knights?

Not understanding how special the Poor Knights are has something to do with New Zealanders not understanding how special their country is in relation to the world's ecological diversity. For a very long period New Zealand has been a tiny continent, located in a unique place in the world. Its long period of isolation has resulted in many species not found anywhere else. Underwater is no exception. Indeed our continental slopes and deep abysses hide a species diversity and uniqueness that can only be guessed at.

Try to find another island in the world with the properties of the Poor Knights and the same species. It simply isn't there. We have close contenders in Mayor Island, White Island but even the Three Kings are already completely different (they urgently need protection for the same reasons). So let's review what makes the Poor Knights so unique.

Foremost, these islands lie far enough from the mainland, not (or little at least) to be affected by runoff from agricultural land and human effluent. The water is usually clear, allowing sensitive creatures to live. It leads to high diversity. Many parts of the mainland's coast used to be this way but have degraded considerably. The Poor Knights allow us to look back in our past. Most of our coastal marine reserves by contrast, including the one at Goat Island, are doomed because of run-off and because they are located too close to human settlements. They are still deteriorating at an alarming rate

The Poor Knights islands are located near the continental shelf, with deep drop-offs all around it. Yet a sizable area of shallow sand is found on a ledge on its Western side. (The depth makes it different from Mayor Island).

The North-South currents are rich in plankton, allowing a colourful tapestry of filterfeeders with many unique species.

Why are Poor Knights so special?
  • it is very unique. no place like it.
  • far away from mainland
  • no damage from effluent
  • deep water all around
  • rich currents, clear, warm
  • islands above water: completely protected
  • barrier shape gives shelter
  • caves, arches, drop-offs, shelter
  • many habitat types, high diversity
  • easy to reach by boat
  • not easy to reach otherwise

The islands run North-South, forming an effective barrier for the destructive Easterlies. Fishermen like the shelter it offers but so do the sea creatures. It is perhaps the only deep water sheltered habitat we have (unlike Mayor Island).

The islands are volcanic to the extreme, with an unbelievable topography of tunnels, caves, archways, nooks and crannies. These give rise to a high number of unique habitats, essentially bringing the tranquil deep ocean fauna to the surface where it can be admired. A place to shelter or sleep is found just about everywhere, resulting in semi-pelagic schools such as Demoiselle, Blue Maomao, Trevally, Koheru and others to take up residence. Cracks are inhabited by Moray Eel, small fish and many molluscs. The Rikoriko and Taravana caves are unique in the world. We have no other place like it in New Zealand.

The islands are completely protected above water and predators have been removed. As a result it houses a big population of seabirds (muttonbird) who drop the sea's nutrients onto the land. Successive rainfalls wash the nutrients into the water where they cause instantaneous production of phytoplankton, shrimps; the start of an almost violent food chain.

The islands can be reached easily from Tutukaka, a one to two hour trip after which shelter can be found in many places around the islands. This makes them economically productive as well.


World Heritage Park

As I have set out, the Poor Knights are so unique that they warrant World Heritage Park status. Indeed, should the minister decide to allow fishing, we as the Seafriends Organisation will push ahead with this option. Should the minister decide for complete protection, as is the only sensible option, World Heritage Park status would nonetheless be attractive since it raises the island's profile and livelyhood of those using it for a living.


Hen and Chicken Islands

Most of the opposition to the no-take option comes from people who do not know how difficult (if impossible) it is to marry exploitation and conservation. Certainly for quality conservation as demanded by divers, researchers and educators, this is impossible. But give the sportfishermen a chance to discover for themselves. Give them the Hen and Chicken Islands by taking it away from MAF.

In principle, these islands are more ideal for fishing since they cover a much bigger area, running from near inshore to far offshore and being right in the way of migrating species.

Give them full management over a 'reserved' area, big enough to eventually become a suitable marine reserve, should the experiment fail. Include a good bit of coastline as well. And let them set the rules to make it the best fishing spot in this country. So it will be a 'take-all' area administered under (changing) rules set by the local fishing clubs from Mangawhai to Tutukaka. It would be a brilliant and educational gift indeed!

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