Goat Island was revolutionary not just because it was one of the world's first no-take reserves, but also because it protected an ordinary stretch of coastline. In true Kiwi egalitarian spirit, the legislation enacted in 1971 to create reserves declared that its purpose was to preserve the typical as well as the unique, and that such preservation was in the national interest. Located in the middle of the water hemisphere, with a coastline greater in length than that of the contiguous U.S. and the world's fourth largest EEZ (the exclusive economic zone recognized by the UN), New Zealand is indisputably one of the most maritime nations on Earth. The country had been a world leader in developing land reserves; now it was time to do the same for the sea.
Given the success of Goat Island, one might assume that the rollout of further marine reserves would have been rapid and decisive. It wasn't. For the next three decades Ballantine would square off against stubborn anglers, reluctant bureaucrats, and fence-sitting scientists.
There was a setback with the very next reserve application, over the Poor Knights Islands, 12 nautical miles (22 nautical kilometers) off the Northland coast. Remnants of an ancient volcano, this cluster of reefs and pinnacles lies at an intersection between temperate and subtropical waters. A warm current originating hundreds of miles to the northwest sweeps past the islands, raising the water temperature one degree higher than on the coast and bringing with it a host of tropical visitors, from coral shrimps to whale sharks.
The underwater architecture is as striking as the marine life. Millions of years of weathering have riddled the islands with arches, tunnels, and caves. The walls of one arch drop 150 feet (45 meters) from surface to seabed, completely drenched in living color. At times, squadrons of 60 or more stingrays hover like stacks of flying saucers in this ethereal blue keyhole.
A submarine cave on the exposed eastern side holds a permanent air pocket trapped against its ceiling. Divers enter through a portal 40 feet (12 meters) under the surface and swim up into the bubble, which is the size of a small car. It is a wonderfully incongruous feeling to take out your scuba mouthpiece 20 feet (6 meters) under the sea and breathe deep drafts of moist, salty, subterranean air.
Rated one of the world's top subtropical dive sites, the Poor Knights would seem to have been the perfect candidate for reserve protection. Yet astonishingly, the legislation crafted to protect such habitats was amended to downgrade that protection. Pressure from recreational fishing interests was the reason. The islands were a favorite destination for anglers and supported a strong game-fishing fleet. Anglers strenuously objected to having such prized fishing grounds declared off-limits. And so began what Ballantine calls the grand compromise, in which commercial fishing was banned but recreational fishing for the most popular species was permitted.
To Ballantine it was a travesty. The act of parliament that sanctified ordinary Goat Island now denied the iconic Poor Knights its chance for ecological redemption. Seventeen years of jousting would elapse before the recreational-fishing provision was removed and full protection was conferred on the beleaguered Knights.