Sea Change
Fix the land not the water, argues radical marine conservationist Floor Anthoni
By Vaughan Yarwood
for the NZ Listener, 5-11 Aug 2000
Photo: Vaughan Yarwood

Floor Anthoni and octopusNorth of Auckland, just up the hill from the Goat Island Marine Reserve and nestled amid 10 ha of trees and grass, is Seafriends, the headquarters of an unlikely rebellion against the current practice of marine conservation. Here, in a converted shearing shed, Floor Anthoni, computer consultant, dive enthusiast and public educator, leads a passionate crusade in defence of the sea.

His contention: marine protection in New Zealand is compromised by an emphasis on commercial species and inappropriate strategies. Lessons learned from the land don't apply to the sea, he says. Every rule is different. And focusing on snapper, blue cod and crays - the species that get the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries - can blind people to what is really happening beneath the waves.

"On a sparkling summer's day it can be hard to understand the plight of New Zealand's seas. But at Goat Island we are not getting a tenth of what a normal environment should support" says Anthoni. He would like to see reserves of 80 square kilometres, not the miserly four, of Goat Island. But he holds little hope for a quick policy change. "Now that conservation has become politicised, people make feel-good decisions to further their own positions".

Anthoni, a diver of 30 years experience, says most proponents of sea reserves have never strapped on dive tanks. "The sea lives in their brain as a virtual world. I came out of the sea. I was a sea animal, and I said "this is not working"". Among the warning signs were deteriorating coastal seawater quality, increasingly frequent blooms of plankton and jellyfish, poisoning of shellfish, mass mortality of fish species and the disappearance of species from areas where they were once abundant.

The Indonesian-born son of a Dutch plantation manager, Anthoni emigrated to New Zealand in 1975, the year that the pioneering reserve around Goat Island, officially the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve, was gazetted. A year later, with his wife Maria, he bought the farmlet overlooking Goat Island and soon found himself taking issue with received wisdom on conservation. Central to his views on marine protection is the need to control what is happening on land rather than in the narrow strip of coast water which is home to 90 per cent of the country's biodiversity. The main danger facing the sea is no longer overfishing but erosion and runoff from farmland, roads and buildings. "I say, conserve the land and you will save the sea. Make a link betweent he two."

In 1990, while viewing film he had shot underwater soon after his arrival, he realised that the health of the sea was still worsening. He decided to become a marine ecologist and, along with Maria, founded Seafriends to further public education and marine salvation. They converted the old shearing shed, put in a restaurant (which converts into a classroom for school visits), built up an extensive borrowing library and photo resource, and amassed a comprehensive stock of dive gear for hire, including 250 wetsuits in 35 sizes and optically corrected face masks.

Each year some 3000 students visit for a day of snorkelling, lectures and rocky-shore studies. They also come to see Anthoni's closed aquatic world - a system of eight linked tanks that, with its tides and varied habitats replicates the local marine environment. "The sea is inaccessible to most people", he says. "Only by opening it up and showing what lives there can we win people's hearts for it".

A website (www.seafriends.org.nz) now delivers his findings to a wider audience. Among them a warning about the demise of that New Zealand icon, the beach: "Scientists have overlooked the natural rebuilding processes of beaches. Millions of dollars are spent each year in this country on coastal research that gives the wrong advice."

Anthoni, who likens beaches to living organisms, claims to have identified several conditions necessary for them to remain healthy, including exposure to sea winds, rolling dunes and the ability to dry out. Among his recommendations for saving 'sick' beaches: cut down sheltering trees and call a halt to dune planting.

Not surprisingly, such radical views have met with a cold reception in some quarters. An international coastal symposium held in Rotorua in April found no opportunity for him to speak and he was obliged to present his views in poster form. Scientists ignored it. "I had expected that", says Anthoni. "If you are a rebel, you tend to kick against conventions. But I have studied conditions in Australia, the Mediterranean, the United States. My own Holland. There is no conflict with my theories".

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