Just over a decade ago the New Zealand Government treated the Volkner Rocks with such little regard that they were used as bombing practice by the Military; firing rockets, heavy artillery and dropping bombs on them.
Many of them missed and landed in the nearby water. A lot of this bombardment occurred at night time as those who have lived here a while, can recall regular sightings of flares out at sea towards White Island.
I was working for the Police at the time and fielded many of the calls from people who thought boats were in distress. I would then check the list supplied at the time to the Whakatane Police by the Air Force of intended firing practices at the Volkners and there were plenty. Despite this the so called rare and unique wildlife of the area not only survived but flourished.
During that time a number of Whakatane Charter and recreational boats would fish the area which was host to an abundance of the worlds largest and hardest fighting Yellowtail Kingfish. Occasionally being buzzed by low flying Skyhawk aircraft warning them out of the area so they could drop more armament was part of the job. I to was the subject of and witness to this on several occasions.
The Kingfishing was so good many boats based much of their operation on it and turned it into a world famous sport fishery, with sports fisherman then and still now travelling from all over the world to have a crack at the record. In fact it is probably the record books which put the Volkner Rocks and White Island on the world map contributing a lot to the sought after tourist destination that White Island is today.
Again about a decade ago the New Zealand Government hammered the Volkner Rocks indirectly with a fisheries blunder that is right up there on the scale of many others. Yellowtail Kingfish was a fish that was not supposed to be targeted by Commercial fishing, however Commercial fishing which accidentally caught Kingfish (called Bycatch) were able to sell it at a small price.
The boats which accidentally captured these fish were generally deepwater gill netters targeting Hapuka, Bluenose etc. For these fisherman locating new grounds or even setting their gear was a fairly hit and miss affair.
Enter the technological age. Coincidentally also about a decade ago the industry suddenly had ready access to electronic depth sounders. These could be left on all the time tracking every bottom feature and school of fish, even making it possible to identify the species.
Prior to this sounders printed on expensive paper would only be turned on as one approached a known spot. Enter the G.P.S. Precise location and transits off landmarks or would use radars to get distances and directions from landmarks and triangulating them to get a relatively close position.
Suddenly the location of reefs and the laying of nets became precise, commercial fisherman could work an area systematically like the grid lines on a map. The resultant boom was short lived and White Islandssurrounding deep water grounds became decimated.
Commercial fishing had to turn to something and the accidental capture of Kingfish was it. Because of its low " bycatch" price a lot had to be caught. The Volkner Rocks became the target and here is where a serious conflict began to arise with Charter and recreational sportfisherman.
Nets started appearing all around. Huge numbers of kingfish of all sizes were being extracted. Huge numbers of non commercial species were also being caught and killed (nets don't discriminate). Nets were hung up and lost on reefs where they continued to capture and kill - the dead fish in them attracting even more to their deaths until sufficient marine growth formed on them to stop them working. Sportfisherman were losing gear and fish as they became entangled in nets and Kingfish stocks plummeted.
Something had to be done. Commercial gillnetting - a totally indiscriminate destructive form of fishing had to be stopped in the area -while there was still a kingfish alive. The commercial targeting of these fish was obvious and illegal but no one other than Sports and recreational fisherman cared.
Battles loomed, on the water - threats were made - lines and floats were cut. On the land cries were made for the recognition of the Volkners as a Kingfisherie under threat - some form of protection was needed.
The protection sought was for the prevention of commercial gillnetting. This has now over the years grown as a result of the input from every conservation minded person or organisation, (only a raction of who have ever been out or will go out to the rocks) who are developing the perception that the whole area is endangered from everyone and everything and needs total protection out to one nautical mile. How this total restrictive proposed ban on any type of fishing for a distance of 1 nautical mile for this area developed is beyond comprehension and is totally unnecessary.
Due to pressures brought to bear on the commercial fishing sector apart from the fact they nearly caught all the Kingfish, a voluntary code of practice that there be no gillnetting at the Volkner Rocks was agreed to. Further, to compromise a little on their side Charter fisherman have since given also and entered into a voluntary code in that kept Kingfish would be limited to one fish per person per day with one metre being the minimum length. This has been in place several years now and has already proved extremely effective. If the Marine protection steering committee feel that some sort of legislation is required then why not cement the current agreements rather than total marine reserve.
This year the Volkner rocks produced the best Kingfish for many years, on several occasions we were surrounded by acres of them. Fish were captured up to 49kgs, my own experiences will account for at least a 2 dozen Australian, American, and English anglers alone rebooking a trip to the Volkners next year.
Stripped marlin were also in abundance there this year, we sighted many chasing and feeding on kingfish.
We at Whakatane owe a lot of reputation as a great Sport fishing destination to the Volkner Rocks. Recreational and charter fishing of the area is easily sustainable on the current mainly catch and release methods used. None of the so-called unique, rare and endangered species are at risk from anything other than gillnetting or seine netting. The rocks offer nothing scenically above the water.The diving is as scenic as it ever was, some say as good as the Poor Knights. Nothing at risk here as divers don't gather Nudibranchia or
Diadema sea urchin.
What will be at risk including Whakatane's Kingfish capital status will be the livelihoods of the 16 or so Whakatane Charter boat operators who use the area responsibly and the hundreds of people who enjoy fishing the Volkners for the fun of it, happily returning most fish.
For those who do not know, the Volkner Rocks are not host to, common snapper, Kahawai, gurnard, terikihi , red crayfish or any other inshore recreational or commercial over pressured fish , nor do they breed out there so don't be fooled into thinking marine reserve status is protecting the breeding areas for those fish stocks.
They tell us marine reserves are for ever, what if the cleaver scientists and do gooders have got it wrong and later we find this wonderful recreational resource fully sustainable and manageable, then you may have done your children or grandchildren an injustice by excluding them fromthe simple pleasure that you once had of being able to go out to a semi remote place, to catch a fish. To keep or let go.
We at Whakatane have the most to lose from this proposal in its present form, it will ultimately be decided on a numbers game, we are all conservationists at heart, more so those of us who rely on the Volkner Rocks and there surrounds for our living.
Fish are established necessities of the Human diet, it does not naturally come in tins and can not be manufactured artificially, maybe one day when humans evolve to a level where we no longer need to eat then there will no longer be a need to kill anything. If all our pleasures could be subconscious hallucinations or on the halludeck like on Star trek. Then on that day I will be the first person to have he entire planet labelled "RESERVE"
Phil van Dusschoten