At present Marine Reserves can only be established in New Zealand through the strict procedures set out in the Marine Reserves Act 1971. They are specified areas of the sea and foreshore that are managed to preserve them in their natural state as the habitat of marine life for scientific study.
Marine reserves may be established in areas that contain underwater scenery, natural features, or marine life of such distinctive quality, or so typical, beautiful or unique that their continued preservation is in the national interest.
Their rules are similar to national parks: no disturbing or taking marine life, rocks, shells or anything else natural, plus no discharges or dredging. However, you may dive, snorkel, take photos, swim, kayak, anchor (with care), picnic on the beach, build sandcastles, and explore rock pools.
There are a limited number of types of organisation that are qualified to apply to the Minister of Conservation to create one. The likely effects are much debated, because the size, age, circumstances and history of each one has an influence on the natural processes and outcome at any one time. However, research and monitoring in many of our 33 marine reserves generally shows that fish communities and other marine life tend to recover towards their natural state.
Research overseas shows that if the area is large enough and compliance is effective, recovery can be extensive over time. You can find monitoring reports for New Zealand’s marine reserves on the DOC website here. The Marine Reserves Act itself is available to read here.
The Poor Knights
In 1981, the ocean surrounding the Poor Knights Islands, off the East Coast of Northland was established as New Zealand's second marine reserve. For many years only two small parts of the Poor Knights were totally protected from fishing, while limited recreational fishing was allowed in most of the Poor Knights waters. That anomaly was finally corrected in 1998 when full protection was given to the marine life of the Poor Knights, around the whole island group out to 800 metres offshore.
The Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve has resulted in a significant increase in the size and abundance of snapper. A 2009 study [link] shows that after more than ten years of no take protection snapper counts were 14 times greater than in 1998 before the marine reserve became fully no-take. The MarineNZ website has a great article on the Poor Knights: The Amazing Poor Knights - Totally Protected and Showing It!
Goat Island Marine Reserve
The Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve - more commonly known as Goat Island - was established in 1975 as New Zealand’s first marine reserve. It protects 547 hectares of shore and sea on the northeastern coast near Leigh.
The reserve includes 5km of coastline and an area extending 800metres offshore. Regular monitoring over the years shows that abundance and size of snapper and cray are considerably greater within the protected areas than in adjacent unprotected areas. The changing outcomes are not always clear cut but you only need to talk to someone who’s snorkelled at the reserve to find out what a difference full protection makes. You can view a summary and download fish monitoring reports at the DOC website.