The shallow reef systems surrounding Motiti Island have long provided kaimoana to locals and the wider public. Over the last 30 – 40 years however there has been a noticeable decline in the marine environment that these reefs support.


The reef systems off the coast of Motiti Island support a large range of plants and animals including fish and shellfish. In 2018 the Environment Court released an interim decision that found the outstanding attributes and values of these reef systems needed better protection.

Environment Court interim decision

The decision was based on scientific evidence showed that over the last 30 – 40 years the overfishing of snapper and crayfish, in particular, has allowed kina to flourish which in turn are destroying the kelp forests that nurture other species. This has impacted the balance of this marine environment.

The Court indicated that the wider Motiti Natural Environment Management Area would require further scientific evidence before any additional controls can be considered.

The decision also indicated that the Resource Management Act (RMA), New Zealand's main piece of legislation which sets out how we should manage our environment, was the appropriate legislation for this to happen under. The Bay of Plenty Regional Council is responsible for implementing this legislation. When it comes to the coastal environment this is done through the Regional Coastal Environment Plan.

Proposed protected areas

In order to better protect these reef systems, the interim decision proposed three protection areas (called the Motiti Protection Areas) be introduced around Motiti Island where the taking of all plants and animals (including fish and shellfish) would be prohibited due to their significant marine biodiversity, landscape and cultural values. Those three areas comprise some 63.5 square kilometres and include Ōtaiti (Astrolabe Reef); including Te Papa (Brewis Shoal), Te Porotiti, and O karapu Reef, Motuhaku Island (Schooner Rocks) and Motunau Island (Plate Island).

High Court and Court of Appeal

The use of the RMA to protect a marine environment, compared with the Fisheries Act, was eventually debated in the High Court and later the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal released its landmark decisions in relation to this case on 4 November 2019. The decisions provide clarification to regional councils on their ability to manage indigenous biodiversity.

In summary the court found:

  • Regional Council can include rules in its Regional Coastal Environment Plan to manage the effects of fishing if it is for the purpose of maintaining indigenous biodiversity or other resource management purposes where there is evidence of adverse effects on values from fishing;
  • The ability of Council to apply controls is based solely on the maintaining of indigenous biodiversity; and
  • In maintaining indigenous biodiversity, an objective assessment is required that includes consideration of necessity, type, scope, scale and location.

This means Council will only be able to apply controls in certain areas. It also means any new rules to protect indigenous marine biodiversity would require a considered approach, using research, include consultation with mana whenua and likely be run through a public plan process.

You can view the Court of Appeal decision here. This decision will inform the final Environment Court decision which is likely to be received in early to mid-2020.

Next steps

Once the Bay of Plenty Regional Council receives the final Environment Court decision it then needs to update the Regional Coastal Environment Plan as per the courts instructions. These amendments would then be sent through to the Minister of Conservation for approval, making the rules operative and enforceable.

Although the proposed area to be protected is relatively small compared with the entire Bay of Plenty coastal marine area, we know that the shallow reefs and rocky outcrops off Motiti are really highly-valued by fishers and that if it goes ahead many will be affected by this change. If it goes ahead, we will be working with stakeholder groups and the public to make sure they understand the rules and why they have been put in place.

Public consultation

This is a unique and complex case, established by the Environment Court. As a result, there has not been specific public consultation, as the proposed protection areas were not part of the Regional Coastal Environment Plan when the last scheduled review and public consultation took place in 2015.

If the Motiti protection areas are put in place by the courts then the first opportunity for the public to influence the new rules would when the Regional Coastal Environment Plan is next reviewed in 2029 (as part of the standard planning review cycle).

What’s happening in the meantime?

Bay of Plenty Regional Council is working with tangata whenua, the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust and a range of scientific advisors from Department of Conservation (DOC); Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI); Department of Internal Affairs (DIA); University of Waikato; Massey University; Toi Ohomai, Forest and Bird; and NIWA to gather together existing scientific monitoring. This will enable them to identify gaps in knowledge to assist with refining a monitoring programme for the Motiti Protected Areas and the wider Motiti Natural Environment Management Area.

Reef off Motiti Island
Kina, nudibranch, and blue maomao found off Motiti Island's reef.

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24 Oct 2019


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