Black coral and butterfly perch at Fiordland marine reserve

Image: Dr. Steve Wing | ©


Our rich and complex marine environment is subtropical to subantarctic and contains over 15,000 known species.


Marine environment refers to New Zealand’s Territorial Sea (from the shore out to 12 nm) and Exclusive Economic Zone (from 12 nm from the shore to 200 nm from the shore).

The video on the right showcases the marine life at Port Pegasus, in Stewart Island/Rakiura. It represents one of mainland New Zealand's most pristine marine environments.


Our marine diversity

New Zealand's seascape is particularly rich and complex due to its:

  • extension over 30° of latitude (from subtropical to subantarctic)
  • position on an active plate boundary
  • position in relation to major water masses and current systems.

This means New Zealand has a rich diversity of marine habitats, with over 15,000 known species. Scientists estimate that there may be as many as 65,000 marine species in New Zealand waters. Our isolation means that many of these species are not found anywhere else in the world.

Scientists estimate that as much as 80% of New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity may be found in the sea. Yet less than 1% of our marine environment has been surveyed. On average, seven new marine species are identified every fortnight.

Human impacts

The marine environment is impacted by humans through:

  • harvesting (including direct removal of species, reduced population sizes, altered community structures and physical damage  from certain fishing methods, such as bottom trawling and dredging
  • land-based sources of pollution
  • sedimentation
  • introduction of marine pests.

Our role

Marine conservation is an important task for DOC. We are responsible for:

  • marine reserves
  • marine mammals such as dolphins, whales, sea lions and fur seals
  • administering the regulations for the whale and dolphin watching industry; and 
  • administering the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, which promotes the sustainable management of the natural and physical resources of the foreshore, seabed, coastal water and airspace from the high tide mark to the 12 nautical mile limit.

New Zealand’s fisheries are managed by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) using the Quota Management System, introduced in the mid-1980s. This system sets catch limits for commercially important species; these are allocated through individual transferable quotas.

In addition to managing fisheries, the government is responsible for ensuring the protection of rare and significant habitats, ecosystems and species, as well as a range of areas representative of the more common coastal, offshore and deep water habitats and their communities.

Marine protection tools

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) represent an investment in our future. They contribute to our prosperity by providing economic, social and health benefits that sustain our quality of life and our national identity.

DOC is committed to working with iwi, communities and interest groups to establish a nationwide network of marine protection. 


In the Marine Protected Areas Policy, an MPA is defined as:

An area of the marine environment especially dedicated to, or achieving, through adequate protection, the maintenance and/or recovery of biological diversity at the habitat and ecosystem level in a healthy functioning state.

Marine protection may be implemented using a range of tools. The MPA Protection Standard was developed to assess which management tools offered sufficient protection to habitats and ecosystems for areas to be considered as MPAs.

To meet the Protection Standard, the management tool(s) at a particular site must provide for the maintenance and recovery of:

  1. physical features and biogenic structures that support biodiversity
  2. ecological systems, natural species composition (including all life-history stages), and trophic linkages, and
  3. the potential for the biodiversity to adapt and recover in response to perturbation.

Three levels of marine protection

  1. Type 1 MPAs: These are marine reserves established under the Marine Reserves Act 1971. This is the highest level of marine protection.
  2. Type 2 MPAs: These areas are protected under legislation and provide protection from the adverse effects of fishing.
  3. Other marine protection tools: These are similar to Type 1 and 2, but don't protect sufficient biodiversity to meet the protection standard. They include benthic protected areas, seamount closures and marine mammal sanctuaries.

Some of these areas overlap. For example most of the Moutere Mahue/ Antipodes Island Marine Reserve is also covered by an extensive benthic protection area, and  many of the marine mammal sanctuaries overlap marine reserves.

New Zealand has applied these levels of protection in a range of different areas, as outlined in the table below. 

Marine Protection Tools


NZ MPA category

IUCN category


Total surface (km2)

Marine Reserve

Type 1 MPA




Fisheries Closure

Type 2 MPA




Submarine Cable Closure

Type 2 MPA




Fiordland Marine Area

Type 2 MPA




Marine Park

Type 2 MPA




Te Whaka a Te Wera Mataitai Reserve

Type 2 MPA




Benthic Protection Area





Seamount Closure





Marine Mammal Sanctuary





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