The failure to establish the 620,000 square kilometre Kermadec Islands’ Marine Sanctuary was one of former Prime Minister John Key’s regrets, who admitted the opposition by Maori to the idea came as a surprise.

Key was badly advised, and the current Labour-led coalition government say they will not repeat that mistake.

At the Maori Fisheries Conference in Auckland last week, Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash made it clear National had bungled the deal and they, as a coalition would continue to consult with Te Ohu Kaimoana and iwi to reach a successful conclusion that would allow the sanctuary to go ahead.

While many in the media and public saw the industry’s vocal opposition to the original proposal as ‘patch protection’ the truth was more complex.

This opposition had little to do with any fishing that was currently occurring in the Kermadecs and everything to do with the rights of Maori under the 1992 Fisheries settlement with the Crown. Te Ohu Kaimoana’s legal challenge said the Bill undermined those rights and the former National government’s unilateral decision to create a sanctuary had to be challenged.

The Kermadec Marine Sanctuary would prohibit all commercial, recreational and customary fishing activities in FMA10 – activities that are already highly restricted through a no-take marine protected area around the Kermadec Islands’ territorial seas and benthic protected areas, which prohibit dredging and bottom trawling to 50 metres above the seabed in both territorial waters and EEZ waters.

All of which is pretty much a moot point because very little or no commercial fishing is occurring in Kermadec waters. Until 2016, there were a few long-line vessels hunting the highly-migratory tuna as it passed through the islands for three months each year but the foreign charter vessels that were catching New Zealand tuna quota were excluded in 2016 with the passing of the Foreign Charter Vessels legislation.

However, Maori were allocated fishing rights in the Fisheries settlement and although there has been no fishing under this quota for more than a decade – and it is yet to be allocated to iwi – concerns still remain on the impact a sanctuary will have on any future development of fisheries in the Kermadec area. The cost of that lost opportunity, and any compensation for that loss, is yet to be established.

Nash told the conference the government was committed to progressing the sanctuary, however this must be in a way that is consistent with treaty obligations. He said the way the previous government managed the Kermadec decision was unprincipled, there was not nearly enough consultation to get it across the line and he would not resile from that.

He said the Labour-led coalition is actively seeking solutions that work for both parties and he was sure they would get there. He said the critical first step was meeting treaty obligations.

This sentiment was also voiced by Kennedy Warne, founding editor of New Zealand Geographic who, in a thoughtful opinion piece in the July 2016 edition, said of the Kermadec decision; “MPA creation has become highly politicised. Governments welcome the chance to win environmental plaudits, and large MPAs in remote parts of the ocean offer big, easy gains. I believe in marine reserves. I have seen how they restore broken ecosystems and replenish depleted seas. I also believe in paying more than lip service to the Treaty partnership. The pursuit of one need not be at the expense of the other.”