The history of marine conservation is essentially a record of slowly changing attitudes. In the 1800s and most of the 1900s the sea was viewed as boundless and resilient. You could take what you wanted from it and dump what you did not want into it – and it would always recover.
The environmental movement
As the environmental movement grew during the 1960s, people began to realise that the oceans were vulnerable. Continuing into the 1970s the French television show The undersea world of Jacques Cousteau revealed life under the ocean to millions. Images taken during dives from the renowned oceanographer’s research ship Calypso helped to change views worldwide.
In New Zealand, scuba-diving technology allowed a growing group of Kiwis to explore beneath the waves. Marine scientists and divers, including Bill Ballantine, Wade Doak and Kelly Tarlton, also began to lobby for protection of the sea and its varied life forms. But until the 1970s, for most New Zealanders the sea was simply a place where they caught fish, and – although they may not have considered it – where a lot of their waste ended up. These attitudes were very slow to change. While the routine dumping of all types of rubbish at sea declined by the 2000s, many people still have no qualms about tossing rubbish from their boats. Each year tonnes of marine debris, much of it plastic, fetches up on New Zealand beaches.
Pollution from the land
While some of this debris comes from vessels, the majority originates on land. Traditionally there was little recognition that activities on land could affect the marine environment, especially the coast, and yet they are among the greatest threats. One step to reverse the trend since the 1990s has been the improvement in the quality of discharges into the sea from sewer outfalls. Māori and many other people in coastal communities throughout New Zealand had long opposed the pumping of raw sewage into the ocean.
Since 1996 the fishing industry has been required by legislation to consider the ecological effects of fishing, and has come under pressure from conservationists to stop destructive fishing techniques such as bottom trawling. If the 20th century was a conservation battle on land, the ocean is a major focus for conservationists in the 21st century.