The spectacular marine reserve in the backyard of New Plymouth
Every day, Back Beach in New Plymouth buzzes with surfers, but beyond the breakers there is even more activity below the surface.
Clear blue ocean water between Herekawe Creek at Back Beach, south of Tapuae Creek near Oakura, and beyond Waikaranga – known as Seal Rocks – is part of the Tapuae Marine Preserve , a 1400 hectare “ contactless ” marine park.
Established 13 years ago, the results of an extended period without human predation are only beginning to show.
Schools of snapper and blue cod can be seen lazily feeding on the sea floor, small sharks surround each other, and there are crayfish as large as the ones your grandfather was talking about.
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The reserve covers 1,404 hectares – or more than 3,000 football fields – and is monitored by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Earlier this week, Marine Rangers set down baited underwater cameras for the first time in years, eagerly anticipating what they would see below the surface.
âThis marine reserve is doing very well,â says Monique Ladds, DOC’s national maritime technical advisor.
“And we get these wonderful pictures back. Not everyone has seen stuff like this before, and they don’t know it’s in their backyard.”
The reserve sparked controversy when it was first proposed in 2005. Despite broad support (60% of 700 submissions were for it), there was also determined opposition, mainly from recreational fishermen who were losing a very accessible fishing area.
This week’s videos seem to show that the stash was worth it.
When the camera attached to an L-shaped frame, with a bait cage full of sardines mounted, hits the ocean floor, all manner of marine life swims or crawls to peek in.
âYou just see the boobies, and the snapper, running around,â Ladds said.
A ‘massive’ 50cm crayfish can be seen crossing rocky bottoms, a nosy spiny dog ââshark swims with other fish, there is a ‘big, old’ snapper and ‘a lot’ of sweeping joined by scarlet wrasse and blue cod in clear blue water.
Ladds was joined on the water by Skipper and Senior Biodiversity Ranger, Cam Hunt, and New Biodiversity Ranger, Rebekah Gee, and Marine Reserve Ranger, Maria Valdes.
Their enthusiasm was infectious when they first put the camera down, many times.
As the camera gives them a glimpse of the reserve which appears to show an abundance of life, proof will come later when compared to previous footage.
In 2013, Callum Lilley, now a former senior ranger of the DOC maritime services, gathered underwater images. Ladds spoke to her when she got back ashore. It looks promising, he says.
Lilley commented on the large number of sweeps, which tended to swim up to the camera in numbers, and the size of the snapper.
The success of the reserve is encouraging, given that the simple ban on fishing guarantees the health of a marine reserve.
Further north, in Auckland, in the Leigh Marine Reserve, better known as Goat Island, the stocks of fish and crayfish are lower than when the reserve was created.
Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Auckland called for an expansion of protected areas in the Hauraki Gulf, after Leigh and two other reserves showed crayfish numbers in much worse condition provided that.
They suggested that the decline was the result of fishing just outside reserve boundaries.
Ladds says that kind of human influence has always affected reserves, and DOC doesn’t always have the capacity to take care of theirs.
âDifferent districts have different priorities.â
The New Plymouth DOC team had always made Tapuae a priority, she said.
“This reserve benefited from it for this reason.”
It was Ladd’s first visit to the reserve, the beauty of which has been enhanced by Taranaki Maunga looming in the background, she says.
“You just don’t get that anywhere else.”
The perfect setting for the reserve is something Hunt, the region’s new senior marine biodiversity ranger, is well aware of. But it’s even better underwater, he says.
âThe diving is spectacular,â says the former Stratford cop. âIt’s an asset that people can discover. We really want people to come and enjoy it. “
Hunt, who returned to Taranaki last year, said the area is one of the few on New Zealand’s west coast.
“The islands are the remains of an ancient volcano.”
Hunt’s crew plan to monitor the reserve more closely from now on with the baited underwater camera, and they can’t wait to be there.
âIt’s a fantastic way to have an uneducated look at what’s going on on the seabed.â
Teams typically end up with 60 hours of footage from a trip and the old process saw someone manually go through all of that.
“A poor person should sit there and count the fish.”
But now DOC has now turned this into a “game” called Aotearoa Spyfish and anyone who logs in to count fish and record their species.
This process helps to develop software that will do this automatically for DOC, so that it can analyze changes and trends in reserves.
By boat, it’s only a 10-minute ride to Tapuae Marine Reserve, and on a clear day Taranaki Maunga is in plain sight and Mount Ruapehu can be seen peeking out behind the town of New Plymouth.
There are buoys that line up with a triangle on land to show boaties where the limits of the reserve are.
Hunt says that despite this, you’ll see people putting pots of pencils âright on the edgeâ, and others have been known to pluck pÄua from the shore.
“You will also have a strange person who takes a chance at fishing.”
He says it goes against everything DOC tries to do – create a nursery.
âYou can use it as a baseline of what the ocean should be like,â says Hunt. “Small fish turn into big fish and go away.”
But, says Hunt, over the years the views of fishermen on the reserve have also changed.
âThey are getting it now,â he said. “They see the benefits.”