Māori reject a giant New Zealand ocean sanctuary proposed by the government

June 18, 2023 • 11:10 am

The Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand, the descendants of Polynesians who made it to the island in the 13th century. After conflict with the Europeans who arrived in the early 19th century, some (but not all) of the Māori tribes (“iwi”) signed the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (“te Tiriti o Waitangi”). That treaty, whose interpretation is in parts ambiguous (partly because there’s an English and Māori version that aren’t 100% interchangeable), nevertheless has three provisions that are clear. Here’s how Wikipedia describes them.

  • Article one of the Māori text grants governance rights to the Crown while the English text cedes “all rights and powers of sovereignty” to the Crown.
  • Article two of the Māori text establishes that Māori will retain full chieftainship over their lands, villages and all their treasures while the English text establishes the continued ownership of the Māori over their lands and establishes the exclusive right of pre-emption of the Crown.
  • Article three gives Māori people full rights and protections as British subjects.

In general, while making Māori subject to British governance, then, it also grants them rights over their land and property and civil rights equal to those of the British subjects in New Zealand.

This last part, the “full rights and protections”, is the part that’s at issue today, for it’s being seen as granting Māori not just legal or moral rights identical to that of “Europeans,” but giving them equal access to and resources of science and natural resources.  I’ve written many times, for example, how the Māori and their supporters are insisting that Maori “ways of knowing” (“Mātauranga Māori”, or MM), be taught as coequal to modern science in school science classes, even though MM has only a small bit of empirical practical knowledge, and largely comprises myth, legend, morality, customs, and religion.

And so it goes with other subjects. The Treaty is interpreted as meaning that Māori get equal say in what kind of science will be done and should get as much money as non-Māori for science projects, even though the people with some or mostly indigenous heritage make up only about 17% of the population. Further, to extend the Treaty to the idea of “equal teaching of science” or “equal grant funding” forces it apply to realms that weren’t even in existence in 1840.

A lot of the fighting about applying the Treaty involves who gets the power to run New Zealand, and because the indigenous people are seen as oppressed “people of color”, there is little pushback to their claims. Teachers objecting to MM being taught in science class, for example, risk their jobs. The epithet of “racism” chills all discourse about how to deal with Māori claims; the group truly has, in New Zealand, what’s been called “the authority of the sacred victim”.

A recent and prime example of misapplication of the Treaty (and of fishing rights negotiated between Māori and the “Crown”), is the overturning of a huge and essential ocean sanctuary proposed and approved by the New Zealand government. Now this sanctuary will not be created because the iwi not only claim fishing rights (which are meager: about $100,000 U.S. per year), but want majority or even full power over the governance of this sanctuary.

What I’ll report here is what I’ve gleaned from several articles, the main ones being below (click to read).

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, discussed in Parliament since about 2015 (and heavily promoted by former PM Jacinda Ardern), is a proposed 620,000 km² (about 240,000 mi²) sanctuary extending far around New Zealand’s largely uninhabited Kermadec Islands, shown below. The archipelago is located about 1000 km (600 miles) northeast of New Zealand’s North Island, and the islands are where the red marker is:


Here’s a pdf of the 17-page proposal from the Minister of the Environment about establishing the Kermadec Sanctuary; and a pdf of the bill is here.

The sanctuary is being established to enlarge by nearly 100-fold the existing Kermadec Marine Reserve, and, at twice the size of New Zealand, would be one of the world’s largest marine reserves. As the Kiwi site Stuff notes:

It supports life not found anywhere else on the planet: home to 431 fish species, six million seabirds, three types of endangered sea turtles, and more than 250 species of coral and aquatic invertebrates.

It is geologically significant, with the world’s longest chain of submerged volcanoes and the second-deepest ocean trench, plunging to depths of 10km – deeper than Mount Everest is tall.

Remote and largely uninhabited, most will never get the chance to visit this subtropic island arc, around 1000 km north-east of the North Island. And that’s what makes it so special – for millennia, it has thrived untouched by human activity.

The Sanctuary is seen as helping fulfill a UN program to protect more of the oceans (one reason being their value as a buffer to climate change). If established, this reserve would, together with ones established by the US, UK, and Australia, protect 3.5 million km² of ocean.

But the Kermadec Sanctuary is not going to happen. Why? Because the Māori commercial fishing interests voiced opposition, and the iwi voted almost unanimously to reject the proposal. Since their assent is essential, the sanctuary is an ex-sanctuary, singing with the Choir Invisible.

The pathetic thing about this objection is that “the Māori commercial fishing interests” are almost nil given that the sanctuary is so far away from the mainland.

[The iwi] argued Māori would no longer be able to source commercial quota from that area. (Officials calculated the catch was small – about 20 tonnes, worth roughly $165,000 a year.) Believing this would override fishing rights enshrined in the ‘Sealord Deal’ – a 1992 commercial fisheries settlement – Māori fisheries trust Te Ohu Kaimoana (TOKM) took legal action.

I’m assuming those are New Zealand dollars since this is a New Zealand site, so the value of the catch is about $102,000 US per year. And THAT is preventing this sanctuary from coming into being? Hell, the government could pay it off easily, and in fact they offered to do so, along with other concessions to the Māori. When it became clear that the Māori weren’t keen on an earlier proposal, the government’s Environment Minister David Parker put this on the table:

Parker, who had hoped to get it over the line before the election, said he had been working on the revised proposal since 2017 to try to get the sanctuary established. His changes included renaming the sanctuary the Ngā Whatu-a-Māui Ocean Sanctuary and setting up a co-governance entity Te Kāhui to manage it. Te Kāhui was to get a $40 million research fund to do that.

The proposed legislation also required it be managed in a way that recognised Māori rights and interests. Te Kāhui was also to be tasked with considering whether the sanctuary could be given legal personhood, as happened with the Whānganui River. It also allowed for a review of the fishing total allowable catch in 10 years’ time, and rights to compensation.

Te Kāhui would consist of four government ministers, four Te Ohu Kaimoana representatives and one representative each for Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Kuri – mana whenua in the area.

You can’t come up with a better deal than that: a cool 40 million in research, co-governance between the “Crown” (the government) and the Māori, renaming the sanctuary, management recognizing Māori rights and interests, and a council with 60% Māori members. Did that fly?

No. The Māori want more. As they made clear, they are “the original conservationists” and don’t want to share any control by the UN or the New Zealand government:

Peter-Lucas Jones of Te Aupōuri said it was never going to support what was proposed – because of the impact on rights and the structure of the proposal.

“We were never going to agree to the Crown extinguishing our indigenous rights and interests in the moana [area of water] that has been identified for the sanctuary.

“[However], we are the original conservationists and we want to see more happen in that space in the interests of the future of our mokopuna [descendants]. But we want to lead that, not be added onto somebody’s relationship strategy with Unesco and the Americans. We want to be part of an idea that looks much further into the future than the next 20 years.”

Parker said iwi had indicated they were not interested in compensation, but the Government had been clear it was willing to consider compensation for fishing rights that would be suspended, saying the cost would be modest because little commercial fishing took place in the area concerned due to its remoteness.

It seems clear that this is not about money or commercial fishing at all; it is a gesture by the Māori to show that, as “the original conservationists” (who killed all the moa and burnt a huge section of the islands), they aren’t getting enough power. They want to LEAD the project, not just be one of a team that include the UN and the NZ government, not to mention the horrible Americans.

This is what conferring authority on a “sacred victim” yields: a huge amount of protection to a fragile ocean environment must give way so that the iwi of the Māori can have power and respect. They don’t want to just be on a team, they want to RUN the team, and in a way beneficial to future Māori.  (As the old saying goes, though, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”)  That is a selfish inversion of priorities that can endanger not just marine life, but the whole planet.

As usual, I got this tip from an anonymous Kiwi scientist who is angry not just at what happened, but at the fact that other Kiwi scientists aren’t objecting to the unconscionable usurpation of power based on the “sacred victim” narrative. As the scientist told me:

I don’t know why iwi rejected it, but it looks as if the iwi want to control the whole process. What interested me was the lack of comment from marine conservationists. Normally when an MPA [“Marine Protected Area”] proposal is rejected there is a lot of protest. This time – crickets.
This lack of protest, of course, is because those who object to the Māori’s demands will be called racists.

31 thoughts on “Māori reject a giant New Zealand ocean sanctuary proposed by the government

  1. This is a tragedy, I hope the Maori find a way to work out differences so the sanctuary becomes reality.

    A similar situation persists with regard to the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) slated to be built atop Mauna Kea, in Hawaii – My home state. A small group of radicalized Hawaiians who lean to sovereignty have been blocking the build citing the “sacredness” of the sight. The TMT could go elsewhere, Chile, for example; however, if that happens, with it will also go the wealth of ground-breaking science the scope would and could have brought to Hawaii.

    As of 2023, there appears to be some hope of the TMT coming through, let’s hope the same happens with the Ocean Sanctuary in NZ.


    As for the lack of commentary by marine conservationists, the most common human attribute in today’s neurosis ridden tribal political climate is the absence of courage.

    1. It is likely not so much an absence of courage in NZ as it is a nation waiting a few more months (October 2023) to elect a new government in the hope that we can soon end this madness and do so peaceably. The average Kiwi knew little about activist-Maori ‘sovereignty’ ambitions until Arden’s second term as PM. It was kept secret until after that election. The govt guaranteed the silence of mainstream media, by tying funding to media to the media’s support for an activist-Maori agenda. Whole new lines of communication had to be developed, and, as those are now gaining wider reach, people are suddenly reckoning with all that is beginning to be exposed. Wait until October. We’ll all know more then about where NZs stand.

      1. Good points. Will be watching this space.

        What are your thoughts about the radio-silence from the NZ media? Not “just” on this issue, but on several others, including gender-criticality?

      2. Average kiwi unaware? I disagree. They are aware but not motivated, it is why NZ First did so well and then went off the rails. Many believe that some recompense is due and we work through that.
        Maori not only fought the Brtitish but for the British (Crown) in 2 world wars. E.g. When you put land forward for the war effort and then never given back but made into a golf course how is that fair. Maori have shed blood for our current system but are not unaccountable now that they are a part of it.
        Changing the government might be an answer but govt’s. have come and gone of all persuasions and never fixed the fundamentals. That is to me, equal opportunity, freedom of speech, airing diversity of opinions via mainstream media and reason.
        We have the same problem arising as any first world country run buy self interested twats, that would be, humans.
        Might it be that making it know that they will be boycotted for fishing this area, don’t buy any of there products. Use the strong arm of public awareness and where are the Greens in this?

  2. Not to sound too conspiratorial, but I would not be even slightly surprised if we learned that the Chinese government was behind the scenes here. They’ve been reaching into the South Pacific for years now trying to undermine Australia and the US, and putting money and energy into sowing divisions, especially along ethnic, lines in Western nations has become dujour for anti-West intelligence departments (Scotland, Catalonia, Calexit to name a few).

    1. Yes. Agree.

      I pay close attention to tChinese influence in the Pacific and Africa (particularly as it relates to conservation), I was just thinking the same. It’s possible the Maori want full control in order to make deals with the Chinese – uninhabited. Conspiratorial? Yes, sounds like it, but not outside the realm of possibility.

      The Chinese are in *hoarding* mode when it comes to food and fisheries.

      “China’s raid on Philippine sea to affect fishery sector —AGHAM”

      A lot more than 40 million? Sure. What is sacred has a variable definition.

  3. New Zealanders can take comfort in the knowledge that every word of te Tiriti o Waitangi (properly understood) is as sacred as the koran, the bible, and ex cathedra edicts of Holy Mother Church. We in academia accord similar reverence to statements which contain special holy words, such as Diversity, Equity, and others which change from year to year.

  4. And then there is this from Australia:

    Farmers in Western Australia are furious about sweeping new cultural heritage laws that will require them to pay an Aboriginal consultant up to $160 an hour to obtain permits to do anything on their land that might disturb more than 50 centimetres of soil.

    Locals have warned that the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021, which comes into effect on July 1, could bring economic activity to a halt while empowering a vast new layer of bureaucracy to “hold businesses to ransom” with costly red tape.

  5. So if the Maori exert control over the site for commercial use, but their commercial use is described as being very small, isn’t this very close to being a protected site anyway? Is it known that their activities have or will have a significant impact on the area?

    1. The Maori (my opinion) will not agree to any such binding contract. They want full control, which may include permitting nations with poor environmental records (i.e. China) access to the site.

  6. Why, exactly, do Maori commercial fishery interests have a veto in the first place over the New Zealand government’s plans for an area of ocean within its sovereign authority and control? The fishermen, or Maori advocates generally, would be one of many self-interested groups who would have made their views known during the political decision process but why do they get a veto when, say, the Commercial Shipwreck Salvagers Association doesn’t? Something has been given away here to allow this to happen and it will not be possible to take it back. This has been called the ratchet effect.

    What other policies decided upon by Parliament (speaking for all New Zealanders) will be be vetoed by narrow Maori family interests? A new wind electricity farm for Auckland? New Zealand’s naval cooperation with other trading nations to maintain freedom of the seas? Anything that doesn’t square with the Maori world view?

    A sovereign government can’t allow a private actor to veto its decisions taken in the public interest. Even if the Maori just want more money as their price for cooperation, this is wrong in principle.

    A commenter elsewhere said the Maori wanted not to be “walked over” by the British. Well, this what you get when you encourage that effort.

    1. I think the Maori are filing a lawsuit against the government, and for reasons I don’t fathom the government is deathly afraid of that. They will not go ahead with the sanctuary with a lawsuit hanging over their heads. At least that’s what I gathered from the sources above

      1. The iwi did sue in High Court way back in 2016 and the government have been strenuously and repeatedly insisting ever since that despite appearances the proposal was not dead in the water (to quote a double entendre used by one news source.) Yet the 13 June Herald story suggests to me that the iwi have exercised a veto: agreement to have the sanctuary go ahead was not possible without their agreement and they decided not to give it. So something changed between 2016 and now. Did the High Court rule (when?) that the iwi really did have a right of veto (thus giving them the kind of leverage over the people of New Zealand (and the ocean) that they are now exerting)? Or is the government just afraid to go back on a promise to obtain their consent before proceeding? As some wag put it, “Consent does not mean a veto” is not a good tagline for your Tindr dating profile.

        Indigenous groups have been led to believe that they really do have a veto over legally constituted governments as part of the self-determination principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) now ratified by all member nations. The United States has wisely regarded its ratification as explicitly aspirational and not binding, and is thus able to ignore it. But some former colonial nations have moved further down the road toward “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state” as Lord Durham (1838) put it in the different context of English-French relations in what is now Québec.

        If it was still a mere lawsuit now, the NZ government could vigorously defend itself (if it really wanted the sanctuary, which it seems it sincerely does) and hope to prevail in Court. Native groups sue the Canadian government all the time, but to stop something the government has approved they have to convince the Supreme Court, which has never interpreted Canadian law to require consent from indigenous groups, only that we consult with them in good faith. If the natives aren’t happy with the decision, tough. The government can use force to enforce it. Canadian indigenous groups who lose in Court can’t just stomp off and exercise (yet) a unilateral UNDRIP veto that has legal force and can’t be over-ruled, as seems to have happened with this ocean sanctuary: The NZ government had to persuade not an impartial Court but its intransigent opponents, who had every strategic reason to say No, and it couldn’t. No means No, no matter how hurt the feelings of the suitor are.

  7. That’s a long way across open sea from New Zealand – did the Maori traditionally fish there before European contact? As I recall, they chartered a British vessel to reach the Chatham Islands, which are about the same distance from New Zealand, suggesting that they no longer had the capacity for regular long blue-water voyages.

  8. I must admit that my sympathy to the Maori as a culture has dropped to an all-time low, far below the point when I first read about them in Jules Verne’s “In Search of the Castaways” (they were portrayed there as barbaric cannibals).

    1. If you want a more contemporary, somewhat sympathetic account, you might want to read Hulme’s The Bone People. I doubt she would appreciate the Māori shenanigans of today, but who knows? Either way, thinking that this example is worse than “barbaric cannibals” I think is hyperbole.

  9. I grew up in Oz and NZ but I’ve lived most of my adult life in NYC (and Tokyo, a bit). There’s a “anti-colonial” dynamic grift that Māori (and “allies”) are playing on NZ. Woke is their weapon. I’m terrified for NZ’s future and am very pleased PCCE is running interference against the Māori Science nonsense. This oceanic thing is part of all that, I think. I bet the same names keep cropping up.


  10. I thought you’d be bringing this up. One of my dreams is to go to those islands, as a realist I know it’s unlikely and I’m totally fine with that, but still think they are an amazing place.

  11. Reading a few articles about this, and most of the comments here, leads me to the conclusion that almost everyone assumes that turning large wild areas into heavily protected and restricted zones is an unambiguous good, and always necessary.

    I have to agree with Jon in his earlier comment, that it seems likely that China is part of the subtext here. I propose that the whole issue has nothing to do with indigenous rights or even environmentalism. Those are pitches designed to appeal to different groups of the voters.
    I suspect this is really about deep sea mining. One tactic that countries like China and Malaysia employ is lobbying liberal governments to place mineral deposits off limits to mining. It limits competition for Chinese-controlled mining interests, and it is an easy sell to certain parts of the population.

    I noticed that in the linked proposal, they mentioned issues like plastic in the oceans, which has nothing to do with anything proposed.

  12. So “Tiriti” is the Maori word for treaty? Since it just the english word spelt phonetically with a Maori accent, it seems fair to conclude that there was no word for treaty in Maori. That would suggest they have no cultural tradition of entering into treaties at all.

    1. In the US, the indigenous population had no cultural tradition of entering into treaties either (maybe with other tribes, but it wouldn’t have been a written law or contract). That went well for the US government who didn’t honor their treaties after establishing them. You think entering into treaties is civilized? It’s more of a con game that the dominating party plays on the victim who doesn’t quite understand that the treaty is pretext and nothing real (they lost a lot and continue to lose by trusting in treaties). In cases like these going way back, it usually means, for those who wrote the treaty (the ruling participant) its duplicitous from the start. That’s a roundabout way of saying I don’t really understand your comment.

  13. I support almost everything you’ve been saying about MM and attempts to have it seen as equivalent to science. With this piece, however, you’re only sharing – and maybe only aware of – a part of the story.

    Maori are fighting to have a seat at the table in deciding what happens around the Kermadecs, and they haven’t been given that, as their 2016 legal challenge made clear. Link here – https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/78060924/maori-fisheries-trust-takes-crown-to-high-court-over-kermadec-ocean-sanctuary?rm=m

    The issue here is that, once again, a government has treated its treaty partner as junior to it and, instead of consulting with it from the start, as it’s obliged to do, it has made a proposal off its own bat. This is in breach of an agreement – the Treaty of Waitangi – that’s been in existence for nearly 200 years. In that time, bit by bit, successive governments have stolen from Maori what is rightfully theirs. When legal challenges from Maori have looked like they might succeed, previous governments have been known to change the law to pre-empt such action.

    I fully understand why Maori are refusing to agree to this arrangement. What you call a small sum of money is just one more small sum of money/parcel of land/etc that’s been taken without Maori agreement. When do you say “enough”?

    The sanctuary is a great idea. I have little doubt it will get created, but in a form that honours our agreement with Maori.

    In this case, Jerry, I say you’re pointing the bone in the wrong direction.

    1. Jerry’s pointing in the right direction. It’s about power.

      I think it is incorrect to regard the Maori family oligarchy as New Zealand’s “treaty partner”. as if the Maori iwi were still a sovereign nation in the usual “inter-national” sense, Under The Treaty, the Maori chiefs surrendered their sovereignty to the Crown and agreed to become loyal subjects of His Majesty and, later, citizens of an independent New Zealand. The Maori, individually or collectively, from 1840 on no longer had any political rights beyond those enjoyed by every other New Zealander. In a sense, they were Treaty partners right up until the moment they signed. After that moment, they stopped being partners and became New Zealanders. Parliament is the supreme law governing everyone. There is no Maori Senate or Upper House of Maori Landlords that must approve Parliamentary bills before they become law.

      Contrast this with a treaty between Australia and New Zealand governing, say, free trade in dairy products. Both countries retain their sovereignty to make laws however each chooses, subject only to the agreement that both will harmonize their laws on dairy regulations and tariffs. The citizens of both countries elect and are governed by only their own governments, not by the one across The Ditch. The aTreatybof Waitangi cannot by any reading be seen this way.

      The solution you are imagining that the sanctuary will be created in a form that honours your agreement with Maori is naive. How will you know if it meets their agreement if there is no constitutionally recognized Maori House of Assembly where this agreement might be legally demonstrated? The proposal just shot down was vetoed at an ad hoc meeting of 45 iwi organizations. How confident can anyone be that this assembly represented the collective will of Maori and not just commercial fishery interests? Are they acting in good faith or are they being influenced by a foreign power? How can we tell? Could Parliament investigate it? And why should this body, and not some other body, have veto? Why not insist on a referendum of Maori? Maybe they chafe at being under the thumb of their family chiefs but are intimidated into silence (as in Canada.)

      If you are deferring to Maori just because they were parties to the Treaty back in 1840, you are really saying that Maori in some extra-Parliamentary fashion are co-governing New Zealand to this day, that they did not surrender governance and sovereignty after all. Be very careful where you go with this because you may find yourself having to submit to whatever the Maori oligarchy imposes on you.

      Jerry is correct that the government of New Zealand is being constrained in its ability to function as a sovereign member of the international community by the thuggery of a small oligarchy within a political minority pursuing its parochial interests. There is no reason to suppose that this will lead to adequate protection of this marine region.

  14. “Maori in some extra-Parliamentary fashion are co-governing New Zealand to this day,” Of course. That is the meaning apparently taken from or read into the sacred text of te Tiriti o Waitangi—the magic phrase invariably referred to by one side in these matters.

  15. I wonder how the Kermadec islands are still allowed to be called by the name of an explorer from Brittany. This is the most peculiar aspect of the whole story.

    1. Actually they aren’t. The NZ government even changed the name of the proposed sanctuary to a Maori expression in an effort to get buy-in from the commercial fishermen.

  16. You have to understand that you need little Māori blood to claim to be Māori. So most Māori activists are in fact self-serving white people, who stand to gain a lot from claiming to be Māori just because their great-grandfather happened to get one pregnant a 100 years ago.

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