Marine reserves provide the highest level of marine protection and are a successful conservation tool with many direct and indirect benefits.

Marine reserves are designated areas that are completely protected from the sea surface to the seafloor, including the foreshore. The entire area is strictly 'no take', including marine life, shells, rocks and driftwood.

Despite these restrictions, a range of activities that do not harm marine life are still permitted in marine reserves, such as swimming, snorkelling, boating and diving.

The Marine Reserves Act was passed in 1971, and in 1975 New Zealand’s first marine reserve was created at Cape Rodney-Okakari Point (also known as the Leigh or Goat Island Marine Reserve).

Purpose of marine reserves

Marine reserves provide the highest level of marine protection in New Zealand. There are 44 marine reserves in New Zealand’s territorial waters, all managed by DOC.

The main aim of a marine reserve is to create an area free from alterations to marine habitats and life, providing a useful comparison for scientists to study.

Under the Marine Reserves Act 1971, 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.

Scientific study was an important reason for establishing marine reserves in New Zealand. DOC commissioned a review to quantify and describe the value of marine reserves for scientific research. 

Benefits of marine reserves

Marine reserves are widely recognised as a successful conservation tool with many direct and indirect benefits.

Conservation of biodiversity

Intended as a conservation tool rather than a fisheries management tool, marine reserves protect all components of a marine ecosystem, helping to conserve biodiversity and allowing ecosystems to return to a more natural state.

Research surveys have shown increases in species diversity, abundance and size of many marine species in marine reserves around New Zealand. Snapper, blue cod, rock lobster and paua have all shown increases in abundance and size in reserve sites, compared to non-reserves sites in many marine reserves.

Examples include:

  • since the creation of the Tonga Island Marine Reserve there are more than 7 times as many crayfish and 40 times as many blue cod over 30 cm
  • snapper and blue cod numbers are significantly higher in Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve compared to monitored sites outside the reserve
  • snapper abundance and length is significantly greater in the Poor Knights Islands Marine rRserve than non-reserve sites and the species diversity is higher than the likes of the Bay of Islands.

Surveys have also shown changes to benthic (seafloor) communities. Before its implementation, Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve seafloor was mostly urchin barrens, dominated by kina. Now it is dominated by thriving macro-algae communities in a phenomenon known as a 'phase shift', thought to be attributed to increased abundances of snapper and rock lobster.

Marine reserves can protect areas of key habitat or location for crucial life stages, such as spawning and nursery areas. There is also the possibility for contribution to fisheries through the spill-over of individuals and through the export of larvae and juveniles from marine reserves.

Better management of the marine environment

Marine reserves contribute to enhanced management of the marine environment by allowing for a better understanding of marine ecosystems.

Scientists can study the behaviour and ecology of species within the reserve without the impacts of exploitation, to better understand natural population fluctuations as opposed to human induced ones. 

Community benefits

Marine reserves can benefit whole communities by uniting people through education and management, connecting people to their 'big blue backyard' and by creating unique attractions that boost the local economy.

Marine reserves are a huge attraction in New Zealand to local, domestic and international visitors. The Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve offers great opportunities for snorkelling and scuba diving with easy viewing of species such as blue maomao and snapper, drawing in thousands of visitors every year.

Likewise, the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve has been rated one of the top 10 dive spots in the world and is New Zealand’s premier dive spot. Visitors from all over the globe pass through the small town of Tutukaka, the gateway to the Poor Knights Islands, benefitting the local community.

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