Bryce Edwards: Why Shane Jones sunk the Kermadecs Marine Sanctuary

Bryce Edwards: Why Shane Jones sunk the Kermadecs Marine Sanctuary

Did vested interests prevent New Zealand from establishing a world-leading environmental marine reserve? There are strong signs that in killing off the proposal for a Kermadec Islands Marine Sanctuary, Shane Jones has been doing the bidding of several industries and groups that he’s closely connected with.

As Oceans and Fisheries Minister, Jones announced that the Government had officially killed off the proposals to create the Kermadecs Marine Sanctuary late last week, just before the Easter holiday began. As a result of his timing, there’s been very little analysis of how and why this has come about. Of course, the decision wasn’t entirely shocking, as the proposal to create one of the biggest fishing-free zones in the world had been mired in difficulties ever since it was announced in 2015 by then Prime Minister John Key.

What killed the Kermadecs?

Throughout the decade that the Kermadecs issue has been fought over, there have been numerous opponents and barriers to the creation of the reserve. Most of these boil down to two main interest groups who have had their own strong reasons to try to veto the sanctuary: iwi and business (especially fisheries, but also mining).

It’s therefore unsurprising that it is Shane Jones who has finally killed off the proposal – as he is someone who has strong sympathies and relationships with both these two groups. As to whether it was iwi or business that had the main role in killing off the bill, it’s yet to be seen. Arguably, in this case there was a big overlap between the two groups, with iwi now operating businesses that profit from the exploitation of traditional assets such as fisheries.

Jones himself has suggested that the axing of the Kermadecs proposal is due to business interests. After announcing that the Kermadecs bill would be taken off the order paper in Parliament, where it had languished for almost a decade, Jones told Newshub that if the Government had moved forward to create such a marine reserve it would amount to an “economic no-go zone”, commenting further that “We’re not going to have the Kermadecs commandeered by a whole lot of test tube-watching white coat scientists” – see Isobel Ewing’s Government scraps Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary plans, seabed mining now a possibility in ‘pristine ecosystem’

Instead of a marine reserve, Jones is reported as asserting that “the Government is focused on driving export-led growth by making the most of New Zealand’s natural resources”, and he stated that he’s asking for advice on opening up the Kermadecs area for seabed mining. Jones said, “The Kermadecs arc does have manganese nodules, but that’s for another time and another day.” Manganese nodules are used in the manufacture of iron and steel.

Jones also went on Newstalk ZB last Thursday to explain that the cancellation of the sanctuary was a decision made for economic reasons: “There’s potential up there in terms of additional fishing – more research needs to be done. And there are manganese nodules in that part of New Zealand’s economic zone. And we shouldn’t, just to satisfy American NGOs, cut off that potential” – see Newstalk’s ‘There’s potential up there’: Minister Shane Jones defends scrapping planned Kermadec Islands sanctuary

Newstalk’s morning host Mike Hosking has saluted Jones for killing off the sanctuary proposal, saying on Wednesday this week that “The only mistake Shane Jones made in cancelling the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary was he did it on a Thursday, and as a result the news would have been missed by many” – see: We need more politicians like Shane Jones

In explaining why the Kermadecs deal had to go, Hosking said: “It would have taken 15% of our exclusive economic zone and cut it off to all commercial activity, and a country that is broke can make no such grandiose moves.”

Hosking also saluted the general political role that Jones is playing in the new Government, especially in terms of prioritising business activity and helping increase fishing, mining and resource extraction. Hosking says the reason that New Zealand has been going backwards is that we don’t have enough politicians like Jones, with his “zeal, and vigour, and bluntness” as well as his understanding of “the modern realities of our economy.”

Shane Jones and NZ First’s relationship to the fishing industry

It is no real surprise that on becoming Fisheries Minister Shane Jones has killed off the Kermadecs proposal given that his party has opposed the creation of the marine sanctuary for many years. His party did something similar when NZ First went into coalition with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party in 2017 – they managed to halt the ongoing work to establish the reserve (which Labour had been advocating for since 2014).

Jones and his party have for a long time had a close relationship with the fishing industry, which strongly opposes the sanctuary. Jones himself worked in the industry before becoming an MP – he chaired both the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission and the iwi-owned Sealord company.

Jones has continued to assert that he is unapologetically “a pro-industry politician”, and he and his party receive much of their electioneering funding from fishing companies. In the past, NZ First has received donations from companies such as Talley’s, Sealord, Simunovich and Vela Fishing.

In recent elections, Jones has been the recipient of money from companies like Talley’s, and Westfleet Seafoods – which is owned by Sealord and Craig Boote. The latter has been particularly open in his lobbying of Jones on issues like bottom trawling, which is one of the activities that the industry wishes to carry out in the Kermadecs area and generally in the South Pacific Ocean.

New Zealand has previously proposed a deep-sea conservation measure be adopted globally to reduce the destruction of the sea floor, but with Jones as the Fisheries minister, the Government has suddenly done a U-turn.

In terms of the Kermadecs proposal, the fishing industry has also been open about their lobbying of politicians against the proposal. For example, in the early debates over the reserve, it was reported that “fishing industry spokesman Charles Hufflett, a shareholder in family fishing company Solander, said the industry had lobbied NZ First to stop the sanctuary.”

NZ First’s relationship with the mining industry

Jones and NZ First are also particularly close to companies in the extractive and mining industry. Jones makes no secret of this. He recently told a journalist: “I’ve always talked to industry. I get a lot of my information about the ebb and flow of the minerals and fishing industry from within industry. And I think it’s hard to pull a conspiracy on a politician like me, when I just openly tell everyone, that’s where I get my information from”.

As Minister of Resources, Jones has recently been attending mining industry events, and spoke in February at a forum for lobby group Energy Resources Aotearoa, hosted by the consultancy firm PWC, and again defended that he received money from such industries that he was now responsible for as a minister, saying: “If you’ve been, for example, a recipient of donations from an industry that you’re involved in, then you’re stigmatised or ruled out of that industry; I utterly reject that” – see Greg Hurrell’s BusinessDesk article, NZ needs to get back to drilling and mining, minister Jones says (paywalled)

Hurrell also summed up the Minister’s general message to the mining industry: “Jones didn’t exactly say ‘drill baby drill’ (or ‘dig baby dig’), but the message was clear, it was time to get back to business in the petroleum and mining industries.”

Jones continues to focus on seabed mining as one of the ways that the extractive industry can add to economic growth. In Parliament last week, he stated: “GNS Science have provided information that the value of so said seabed is one-half a trillion – $500 billion – including phosphate in the Chathams and manganese nodules in the Kermadecs.”

NZ First’s relationship with iwi

It’s not just business groups that have been opposed to the Kermadecs Island Sanctuary, but also iwi, based on Treaty rights. This was the first barrier that the proposal struck when John Key announced the sanctuary – several iwi protested that if fishing was prohibited then this would extinguish their fishing quotas granted in the 1992 Treaty settlement on fisheries. The Māori Party took up this cause, and although they voted for the first reading of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill, they then threatened to walk away from the Key Government over the matter.

Since then, both National- and Labour-led governments have continued to negotiate with iwi and hapu over establishing the Kermadecs marine reserve. In 2022 and 2023 there were even signs that a deal was very close to being signed. David Parker as Minister of Oceans and Fisheries had made a number of significant concessions that appeared to satisfy the iwi involved in Te Ohu Kaimoana, which is the Māori Fisheries Trust that represents Māori commercial interests in fisheries. However, at what reportedly seemed to be the last minute, there was a change of stance, and nearly every iwi voted to reject the sanctuary.

It has not yet been reported what it was that turned all the iwi off Parker’s sanctuary deal. But some clues came in the middle of last year in an opinion piece in the Herald written by Penetaui Kleskovic – see: Kermadec Reserve is no sanctuary from obligations to Māori (paywalled)

Kleskovic is the operations manager at Te Aupouri Commercial Development and Te Aupouri Fisheries Management Ltd. He’s also the son of Shane Jones. Both of them affiliate with Te Aupōuri, which is one of the two iwi with ancestral connection to Kermadecs.

Originally, Te Aupouri had favoured the sanctuary, but in his opinion piece, Kleskovic explains the potential economic benefits that his iwi and others stand to lose from “prohibition” if the sanctuary was created. He says “It is obvious that within such an expanse there are rich fisheries and other resources.” Kleskovic effectively says that any iwi that supports what he calls a “dubious UN initiative” underpinned by “ecological speak” would be guilty of impoverishing other Māori.

The fact that the sanctuary would mean fishing companies would lose future rights to harvest from the big zone around the Kermadecs meant that there was always going to be some business resistance to the marine reserve plan. The fact that those fishing companies are iwi-owned meant that this resistance had an even greater chance of success – especially in connection with NZ First and Shane Jones.

What Shane Jones has achieved

The dream of creating the Kermadecs marine reserve is now entirely dead in the water. And there’s probably not much chance of it being revived now.

Some are taking comfort in the fact that there will still be a “no-take zone” in the waters directly around the Kermadec Islands. As Jones has stated, there’s already a 12-mile reserve around the coasts – which he says is more than enough. But the proposal was supposed to extend that out to 200 miles.

It is in that extended 200-mile zone that the most pristine parts of the planet’s ocean still exist. Conservationists point out that in the wider area, there are endangered turtles, 431 fish species, millions of seabirds, and important coral. The second deepest ocean trench is also found in the area – 10 kms down – and the longest line of submerged volcanos in the world. It’s also an important migratory route for whales. Some have called the area “an underwater paradise”. But all that is now at risk.

Keeping the Kermadecs available for fishing and mining is also a problem for New Zealand’s role in world ocean conservation. As part of its commitment to averting the biodiversity and climate crises, the country has signed up to an international commitment to place 30% of New Zealand waters into marine reserves. If the Kermadecs reserve had gone ahead, then New Zealand would now be at 15%, but instead only 0.5% has been achieved.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is obviously ok with this, and must therefore trust Jones in his Fisheries role. But should he? A survey on this issue was commissioned last month by Greenpeace and run by Horizon Research asking whether the public trusts Jones to look after New Zealand’s ocean and fisheries. 85% answered “no”. Furthermore, 57% of those polled agreed that MPs who accept donations from the fishing industry should not be the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries – see Jonathan Milne’s Fisheries minister looks to save industry, ‘not just sponges’

Jones was less trusted when he last became a minister – in 2017 his potential conflicts of interest meant that Jacinda Ardern refused to give him his prized Fisheries ministerial warrant. So perhaps Luxon would be wise to keep a much closer watch on Jones – especially in terms of his connections to various vested interests.

It’s those various interest groups that have essentially been allowed to veto what would have been a big leap forward for the environment and the planet. And Luxon should be reminded that it was his mentor, John Key, who originally pushed for that sanctuary. So, effectively the proposal was created by a National-led government but is now being killed off by another National-led government.

Even today, the National Party say they support the Kermadecs sanctuary, along with Labour the Greens, and Act. As National-aligned political commentator David Farrar points out today, “If it was put to a vote in Parliament there would be over 100 MPs in favour. But both Te Pati Māori and NZ First have successfully blocked it and now killed it” – see: Very disappointed the Kermadecs sanctuary has been abandoned

In dropping the Kermadecs plan, the new Government has essentially allowed various interest groups to veto what would have been a big leap forward for the environment and the planet. And it won’t be the last thing to be influenced by vested interests. Therefore, all those involved in killing the Kermadecs deal now deserve as much scrutiny as possible for producing this shameful result.

Dr Bryce Edwards
Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington