Opinion by Pete Watson
The Marlborough Sounds is in deep trouble or to be exact – deep silt and filth.
As many know and yet fail to stand up and express concern loud and clear, is that the people’s Marlborough Sounds vital aquatic ecosystem has been and is continuing to be smothered.
The ecology of the Kenepuru Sound in particular is in a disgusting state and only a shadow of its former glorious self.
Numerous reports to the Marlborough District Council have identified a deteriorating and drastic situation as forestry run-off in particular, from clear felled forestry areas results in rapidly accumulation of silt. Combine this with the waste from extensive marine farming which helps creates an extremely demanding environment for the Sounds for once abundant sea life to survive, let alone thrive.
Metres of Silt
To most people it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind” but having dived in numerous places to monitor effects, I have seen the layers of silt deposited, seen the dead zones and witnessed the gradual but certain changes that have taken place. The smothering silt and waste is not just centimetres deep but in places, many many metres deep!
I have lived nearly every weekend and spare moment for the past four years in the Kenepuru Sound near Waitaria bay, where I will move to full time as soon as life allows it. However I have for over 45 years had a close connection to the Keneperu and the Marlborough Sounds as a whole.
I speak from first-hand knowledge, I clearly remember how things were, they were definitely not how things are today.
My first memory of a visit to the Kenepuru Sound involves one of the gravel road all the way from Linkwater. It was 1974 and we were embarking on our annual Christmas family vacation, having left from Hapuku near Kaikoura where my father was the only teacher. Loaded with myself, two brothers either side of me in the backseat, sister in between mum and dad in the front – a trailer load of camping gear and fishing rods, all bouncing along in the trusty HT Holden.
The journey was one of heat, dust and car sickness for a young lad, but the prize of three weeks camping at the favourite spot just short of Black Rock, Kenepuru Sound made it all worthwhile.
I would not have missed it for the world, sitting with Dad on the beach, sunburn ,sandflies, and pesky wekas snooping, while staring at the fishing rods willing them to bend to the snapper bite which in those days always happened at some point in a 24-hour cycle.
Love for Sounds
After the success of the first family venture we continued visiting the Kenepuru all through my childhood. Nearly every May, August, Easter and Christmas holidays every year until I grew too cool as a teenager to go fishing with my father.
However Dad had instilled in me a love for the Sounds and I was hooked.
In my later teenage years, camping with friends during the great long hot summer days and with the lady that became my wife, this was just the beginning of the next cycle. After my wife and I returned from a brief foray of living overseas the next generation of family camping holidays began once we returned to Marlborough.
I wanted my children to experience the same, to grow the same love as I have for the place, although as a family we moved further afield than just the Kenepuru Sound. We visited, camped, and boated the Port Underwood, French Pass, and Queen Charlotte but the Keneperu in the Pelorus always remained our favorite.
In my life to date I have fished, dived, commercially fished, commercially dived, curiosity dived and skippered vessels into probably every nook and cranny the inner Sounds hold, as well as the outer Sounds around the likes of D’urville, the Chetwodes, the Brothers and Port Gore. Midlife found me ranging from commercial paua diving on Cape Campbell to tuna fishing out of Manukau near Auckland in the North or as deep as Fiordland in the south. I have lived and breathed the sea for a large part of my life. All of that sea time gave me some fast, exciting and often terrifying tales to tell the grandchildren but without a doubt the greatest memories I will ever have, were collected right back there in the Keneperu sound.
Unfortunately, the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome seems to have afflicted most people in Marlborough and the Marlborough District Council as well. When you see a beautiful day out in the Sounds with, clear waters, lovely intimate beaches and green hills, people perceive that what lies underneath must be happy and healthy as well ? Yet the supposed guardians of the public’s interest and the public’s environment, in this case the Marlborough Sounds Marlborough District Council, has no alibi for inertia to the malady.
Dr Steve Urlich a Lecturer in Environmental Management at Lincoln University was the Marlborough District Council’s coastal scientist from 2013-2018. In 2015 he also was sounding warnings of the developing dire situation. He was ignored.
In April this year he wrote a newspaper column published in the “Marlborough Express” in which he told how the Marlborough District Council no longer considered the Marlborough Sounds as the region’s “jewel in the crown”, having decided to delete that description from the Marlborough Environment Plan ( M.E.P ).
He further explained that “the plan continues to allow the living skin of the seabed to be continually ripped up in clouds of sediment with strewn dead and dying marine species, that the Marlborough District Council “also sanctions sediment to continue to stream off erosion-prone hill slopes, which smother the seabed and estuaries, and discolor the myriad of waterways of the Sounds.”
Sounds Crisis Ignored
The M.E.P was unveiled early 2020 as the ‘blueprint’ for sustainable management of Marlborough yet it does nothing to help sustain probably the largest part of Marlborough seen by not many, our Sounds seabed.
Then Steve Ulrich asked “why did the council decide to allow ongoing biodiversity decline and ecosystem degradation?”
Frankly, it’s blatant hypocritical irresponsibility by the Marlborough District Council.
After all the council’s own 2015 State of the Environment Report and scientific advice spoke of the adverse ecological effects of industrial practices, which cause widespread seabed damage and land disturbance.
There can be no excuse for MDC’s inaction having spent millions of dollars on coastal science stretching back decades. It is time that they acted, fast, to prevent the continuing decline of the Marlborough Sounds ecosystem instead of using the same statement “we need more scientific data ” or offering up the vote grabbing rants every three years at election time about how much they care for the public’s Sounds and environment as a whole.
I am tired of hearing how councilors want to protect our environment for future generations when the massive amount of monoculturistic expansion in the big three of grapes, forestry and marine farming in Marlborough makes this statement farcical.
Water quality, water availability, available farming land, heavy chemical use just to mention a few stresses. It is just as well Blenheim is building a new library as soon that will be the only way our future generations will be able to see how the land filled the tables and how bountiful and clean our Sounds once were.
As a property owner in the Sounds I’m dismayed at the dilemma and angry at the apathy of council as well as the same showed by the public. During the last election campaign I listened yet again to a couple of candidates, now on council, declare their concern for the Sound’s deterioration and now I hear silence.
It doesn’t speak much for their commitment and principles in my view.
In 2016 I watched a presentation by the council’s own science team, headed by scientist Rob Davidson, which went on to show the tremendous destruction occurring in the Marlborough Sounds.
The council’s own paid scientist was presenting face to face, many disturbing downward trends of environment health and facts such as finding sediment up to 30 feet deep in places smothering to death the marine life.
Sitting councillors were horrified and voiced genuine concern during the filming of this presentation yet still did nothing.
I never heard of a councillor speaking out on the death of the Sounds or of the horrific findings they had been presented with. Surely they were incensed into action? The presentation by Davidson was no secret, in fact I watched it on Youtube where it had been loaded but subsequently disappeared from Youtube shortly after.
The fact that Dr Steve Ulrich after several years at the Marlborough District Council left for Lincoln University seemingly under haste, strongly suggests he may have left, disappointed, disillusioned and possibly angered at the failure of MDC’s bureaucracy and councillors to heed his and others’ warnings. In the few meetings I had with Dr Urlich he projected himself as a man that cared deeply for the environment and Marlborough as a whole.
Steve Urlich however is not the only shining light nor the only voice speaking out in the wilderness. Many other reports since the 1980s, identified threats the Sounds could face. Many independent well researched writers have been attempting to stir the apathetic population of Marlborough into caring. As well, multiple small activist groups have worked tirelessly for years trying to curb the ever-expanding threats to the Sound’s health and help slow the retreat of species moving away seeking healthy habitat instead of the smothering mud.
Resource consents for extension of mussel farm permits are regularly seen in the newspaper’s advertisement columns, often the applications by corporate giants in the industry fishing companies such as Talleys and Sanfords. Not surprisingly council rubber-stamps most of them. These unbelievably continue to this day in the face of alarming habitat statistics
What council fails to consider is that environments and their ecosystems have finite carrying capacities. Overstep and growth rates decline. It’s an axiom of farming. Farm to under the carrying capacity and you ensure quality.
Overstepping the carrying capacity does nobody any good and more particularly farmers. Perhaps that explains why the growth to marketable maturity of mussel farms in the Sounds has according to aquaculture sources consulted with, gone from 18 months to as great as 3.5 years and even longer for others.
I always like to mention in any of my writings some of the well noted declines as well as the closures that have occurred in the Marlborough Sounds. Since the mid 80’s commercial trawling has been closed off in the Marlborough Sounds yet the fish have not returned to similar numbers in spite of a near 40-year rest.
In my early day as a commercial fisherman I enjoyed the break from fishing coastal waters and ventured into the Keneperu to catch up with fellow fishermen and use the only method available small gill nets to catch the prolific breeder the greenback flounder. For 6 to 8 weeks from the 1st of April the Kenepuru Sound would sustain the pressure of up to ten boats vying for the wee fish, but we were noting a year on year decline in our catch history books. Having a ten month rest from commercial operators except for the few recreational fishers using nets and fishing the total allowable 6 months, the flounder species had plenty of time to breed and multiply yet each year, further decline was noted. Today the number has dropped right off to one maybe two commercial operators and catchs that are far smaller to 20 years ago, so what has changed?
There is now more time than ever for the fish to breed yet they do not. When speaking with my neighbours this season, who tell of years ago successfully setting a net day after day in the once very lucrative Waitaria Bay, to today not even catching one prized flounder for sometimes days on end, it is unbelievable.
So what is new? What is causing the continuing decline of fish to make the Keneperu and vast majority of the Pelorus and other parts of our Sound like an ecological ghost town near devoid of human recreational use summer to winter!.
Well habitat loss is the key. When you remove habitat you remove food sources. No food, no fish! No fish for tea and people don’t come, it really does not take science to see what has and is continuing to happen yet all we hear from our esteemed council leaders is, “We must have more science to figure the crisis out”!
So what is causing the habitat loss?
Well the only two major influences to enter the Sounds since closures took effect in the 1980’s is marine farming and pine cultivations.
So you decide. The fish have not left due to recreational or even commercial fishing pressure as surely now there is next to zero fishing taking place the fish would have returned in magnificent numbers.
Yet they have not.
So most importantly where is the public outcry forcing action?
Perhaps the council’s bureaucratic system and the power of the executive power has silenced the elected representatives on council and the hardiest of environmentalists in the public sector?
This subject needs urgent and forthright action.
The Council needs to implement and fast track a rescue plan.
Who knows, councillors may begin to hear our cries even if we have to wait for the next election to stir their instincts for political survival to continue as the public’s elected representatives?
Footnote: Peter Watson is a former Commercial Fisherman, now a recreational fishermen and conservationist and a Marlborough Sounds Restoration advocate