1st Oceania Regional Meeting, December 1998 -- Opening address

02/12/1998

Opening Address to the First Oceania Regional Meeting

Quality Hotel, Te Rapa, Hamilton, New Zealand, Tuesday 1 December 1998, 10.30am

by the

Hon. Marie Hasler,
Associate Minister for the Environment

Welcome everyone. It is an honour to open the first Oceania Regional meeting for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

While there are only three Pacific countries who are signatories to the Convention - Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand - it is good to see representation from many other Pacific nations, making this a truly regional meeting.

It is also pleasing to see representatives from many different agencies, non-governmental organisations, and iwi here today.

Coming here from within the Pacific region - and further afield - has meant long journeys for some people.

Thank you all for making the effort to be here. I hope you can make the most of your time in New Zealand and see some of the wetland areas we’re talking about.

As Associate Minister for the Environment and MP for Waitakere, I have a strong interest in conservation and the environment.

You may well have the time to pay a visit to my own electorate, which is renowned for its beauty and commitment to environmental issues.

In 1993, Waitakere became the first city in New Zealand to adopt Agenda 21.  This international agenda for the 21st century sets out to address serious global issues of social inequities and environmental degradation.

Waitakere City is bounded on the south by the Manukau Harbour, New Zealand's second largest harbour covering 340 square kilometres. At low tide some 145 square kilometres are exposed mudflats.

This vast wetland area is at the backdoor of a third of our country's population, and protection of the wildlife and ecosystem is managed in conjunction with many other uses of the harbour. These include Auckland's main sewerage ponds, commercial fishing and recreation.

The Manukau Harbour supports six important roosting sites for waterfowl, and is the feeding ground for an estimated 50,000 birds. Half of these birds are international migrants - although these migrants are encouraged to stay well away from Auckland International Airport, which is also on the harbour.

New Zealand has some 73 wetlands and wetland complexes which meet Ramsar Convention standards for international quality. Five of these are currently listed in the Ramsar Convention.

Our five sites comprise just under 39,000 hectares, out of a national total of 311,000 hectares of remaining wetlands, excluding rivers and lakes.

Less than 200 years ago, this country was criss-crossed with wetlands - rich in birdlife, insects, indigenous fish, and plants. These Wetlands supported diverse forest, flax, and peat communities. Near the coasts, saltwater lagoons and marshlands provided homes for many endemic and migratory birds.

Here in the Waikato a magnificent swampy kahikatea forest stretched from the Hauraki Gulf coast inland a couple of hundred kilometres.

The country’s tallest trees loved having their feet wet and they provided shelter for many other plant and animal species.

The kahikatea also provided good timber for settlers, and the flat land, once drained, has been perfect for farming.

The accessibility and usefulness of wetland areas for conversion to pasture and horticulture has led to the disappearance of ninety percent of New Zealand’s wetlands.  Tragically, some wetland types have disappeared, or almost disappeared, forever.

It is now up to our generation to protect and restore the remaining remnants.

Protecting this 10 percent of remaining wetlands, nationally, is an important part of safeguarding New Zealand’s biodiversity.

New Zealand’s draft biodiversity strategy, due for release early next year, looks beyond the boundaries of New Zealand’s public conservation lands and protected marine areas to all natural habitats important for biodiversity. These include wetland environments.

Many groups within New Zealand - including local government, the rural and marine sectors, non-government organisations, scientists and researchers and iwi - as well as central government, are key players in shaping and implementing this strategy.

The biodiversity strategy will enable New Zealand to focus on turning the tide in the next few years to halt biodiversity loss.

The strategy notes that there is great regional variation in the extent of loss of wetland communities; ranging from a loss of 63 percent in Southland to 99 percent in the Bay of Plenty.

Of the remaining wetlands, many are degraded to varying extents by weed invasions, modifications to hydrological regimes, and barriers to fish migration. We do have some large remaining wetlands with internationally significant biodiversity values.

The draft strategy also notes there is a generally low level of public understanding of the special characteristics, values and vulnerabilities of freshwater biodiversity.

Indigenous fish are undervalued compared to introduced sport fish.

The pervasive effects of plant and animal pest invasions in freshwater environments and the special qualities and vulnerability of underground freshwater ecosystems are two areas that are not well recognised or understood.

So there’s a lot of work to be done to increase public awareness and appreciation of the diversity of natural life in our wetlands, and to protect them from threats and restore them where appropriate.

Wetlands represent some of New Zealand’s most diverse ecosystems, yet people aren’t aware of their value for biodiversity. This is why meetings such as this one have such significance.

There are great gains to be had in gathering together wetlands experts, from both technical and policy sides, to share knowledge about the state of our wetlands, and how we can best manage them.

This is also Oceania’s chance to prepare its position on priorities and major issues ready for the next global meeting under the Ramsar Convention, in Costa Rica, in May next year.

We need to get ourselves into a position where we understand the issues and can contribute to worldwide policy on the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

I am pleased to be opening the Ramsar Convention for Wetland’s first Oceania regional meeting. My hope is that by sharing your knowledge and by combining your experiences, you can, at this meeting, set goals and prioritise actions for the wisest and most effective way of protecting Oceania’s wetlands.

I also hope that you will be able to identify how you can assist each other in your work for wetlands, and that this meeting will fire up your commitment to the protection of wetlands and you will leave invigorated and inspired.

If this meeting achieves these things, I believe from the wetlands’ point of view, it will have been worthwhile.

Thank you once again for the invitation to speak and meet with you this morning. I wish you well for your meeting over the next three days.

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