Protecting Coastal Biodiversity

New Zealand’s coast is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including many species that are found nowhere else on Earth. The country’s mild climate resulting from the oceanic context of its islands, and extensive landsea interface, supports a specialised suite of plant species that do not grow further inland. Although heavily reduced from their pre-human natural state, coastal ecosystems also support an unusually wide range of birdlife and several marine mammal species. Because indigenous habitats on the coast are some of the most modified in the country, it is important that remaining high quality areas are protected and that degraded areas are restored where possible. More information about coastal biodiversity can be found in the biodiversity section of this website.


Section 6 of the RMA provides that “the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna” is a matter of national importance. The NZCPS 2010 contains new provisions requiring the protection and management of biodiversity within the coastal environment. Objective 1 seeks to protect representative or significant natural ecosystems and sites of biological diversity in the coastal environment. It also seeks to maintain the diversity of indigenous coastal flora and fauna. Other elements of Objective 1 are important for coastal biodiversity including “maintaining or enhancing natural biological and physical processes”,  sustaining ecosystems and maintaining coastal water quality.

In order to appreciate the full scope of Objective 1, it is important to understand the key biological concepts and terms used.

  • Safeguard - The objective is to safeguard the integrity, form, functioning and resilience of the coastal environment. Human activities that adversely affect these elements need to be avoided or managed through planning frameworks. Efforts to reduce the risk of undesired shifts between ecosystem states should address land use, nutrient stocks, soil properties, freshwater dynamics and the biomass of long-lived organisms 3164
  • Integrity – This term is associated with how “intact” an environment is and its functioning relative to the potential or original state of the ecosystem before human alterations were imposed. It includes the non-living chemical and physical factors and the interplay between parts of the system. One definition of integrity is “the capability of supporting and maintaining a balanced, integrated, adaptive community of organisms having a species composition, diversity and functional organisation comparable to that of the natural habitat of the region” 3165
  • Resilience – Resilience has been defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks. 3166  A resilient ecosystem resists damage and recovers quickly from seemingly random disturbances (such as fires, flooding, windstorms and insect population explosions) and human activities (such as deforestation and the introduction of exotic plant or animal species)
  • Sustain – This is a key element of Objective 1. The Planning Tribunal (which has been subsequently replaced by the Environment Court) has stated that sustainable management “places” the emphasis on ensuring that resources are not used up at a rate greater than their recuperative properties allow.

The overriding intention of the legislation is to ensure that successive generations “husband the available resources and pass them onto the next in no lesser state than was available to the donor generation”. 3167  This means that the ecosystems of the coastal environment should endure for future generations in the same or better state as they were previously.


The coasts of New Zealand were once covered in native vegetation, formed dunes, wetlands,  beaches and rocky cliffs, and in some places had coastal forest to the water’s edge. The plant communities would have graded from those inhabiting estuaries and lagoons, to dunes and rocky cliffs, and finally those forming diverse coastal forests. Many coastal habitats have been destroyed or significantly modified since human settlement. Only small areas of remnant coastal vegetation and other habitats have survived. Due to the extent of loss, many of the remaining ecosystems and habitats are highly significant. The biodiversity in these ecosystems is among the most threatened in New Zealand. In addition, there have been significant impacts within the marine environment including from fishing, aquaculture and degradation of coastal water quality. These issues are discussed further in the marine section of this website.

Development along the coastal margin, in surrounding catchments and in coastal waters, has significant implications for coastal biodiversity. Some of these include:

  • Habitat loss, and associated fragmentation of natural areas, which increases their susceptibility to infestation by pests and weeds
  • Reduction in the population size of indigenous fauna, which can be supported by natural areas, increasing the risk of local and regional extinctions
  • Loss of estuaries and coastal wetlands through reclamation, resulting in the loss of these habitats for indigenous species and loss of buffering and filtering functions
  • Excessive rates of sedimentation in some estuaries and harbours resulting from the removal of indigenous forest and the effects of other land uses, which smothers bottom-living marine organisms, limits fish spawning and in northern areas contributes to the increased spread of mangroves
  • Numerous invasions of weeds and pests close to coastal urban settlements, including domestic cats and dogs, leading to the loss of native bird and invertebrate species and the disruption of forest regeneration processes
  • Exacerbated coastal erosion resulting from activities such as damming of rivers and the removal or de-stabilisation of coastal foredunes
  • Habitats of threatened birds, shellfish and sand dune vegetation and fauna being destroyed by vehicles driving on the beach and in unpaved coastal areas

New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement

Protecting Biodiversity

Policy 11 requires district and regional plans to protect indigenous biological diversity in the coastal environment. There is an internal hierarchy built into Policy 11 that is similar to the policies related to natural character and landscape. It requires the avoidance of all adverse effects of activities on the matters referred to in part (a) which includes species that are listed in New Zealand and internationally as threatened or at risk. Significant adverse effects are to be avoided and other adverse effects are to be avoided, remedied or mitigated on the matters listed in part (b). The focus of these matters is on the protection of important habitats.

Policy 11 protects threatened species as well as ecosystems. Coastal managers now need to familiarise themselves with the New Zealand Threat Classification System lists and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists.

The New Zealand Threat Classification System is a national system led by the Department of Conservation. It uses objective criteria and information drawn from a wide range of experts to rigorously assess the risk of extinction faced by New Zealand plants, animals and fungi. 3168

Each taxon is placed in a category that reflects the level of risk it faces. Regional and district councils are now required to identify the threatened and at risk species within their jurisdiction which need to be protected from adverse effects. Examples of such protected species provided in the NZCPS 2010 are Maui’s dolphin, Hector’s dolphin, New Zealand fairy tern and Southern New Zealand dotterel. 3169

Policy 11(a)(iv) requires adverse effects of activities to be avoided on habitats of indigenous species which are naturally rare. Landcare Research has compiled a list of 72 types of historically rare ecosystems identified as occurring in New Zealand, many of which are coastal. 3170  This recent scientific work, which is based on a robust assessment framework, provides council staff with far more clarity around the status of threatened ecosystems.

Policy 11 lists the kinds of habitats it is endeavouring to protect from significant adverse effects. These include estuaries, lagoons, coastal wetlands, dunelands, intertidal zones, rocky reef systems, eelgrass and saltmarsh. The policy also highlights the importance of ecological corridors and places important for migratory species and for the vulnerable life stages of indigenous species. In addition, areas of predominantly indigenous vegetation are to be protected, which would include mangroves.

There are situations where the provision of public access to the coast can conflict with protection of biodiversity. The NZCPS 2010 recognises the public expectation of, and need for, walking access to and along the coast and directs decision-makers, through Policy 19(3)(a), to only impose a restriction  on these where it is necessary to protect threatened indigenous species. This is discussed further in the public access section of this website.

In terms of protecting marine biodiversity, Policy 12 recognises the importance of marine biosecurity. It requires regional councils to control, as far as practicable, activities which could cause harmful aquatic organisms to be released or spread. It identifies a number of activities which might cause this including the introduction of marine structures, operation of vessels, dredging and aquaculture.

Regional councils face a major challenge in addressing marine biosecurity issues. This is due, in part, to the weak linkages between the RMA and the Biosecurity Act 1993 where much of the actual implementation of biosecurity management occurs. To undertake marine biosecurity effectively, councils need to integrate the provisions of their regional pest management strategies prepared under the Biosecurity Act with those in RMA plans. Although it is important to control activities which create marine biosecurity risks in regional coastal plans as required in Policy 12, this in itself is unlikely to achieve effective control or containment of marine biosecurity threats or incursions, many which are the result of overseas vessels entering the country.

Restoring biodiversity

Ways to achieve restoration of coastal biodiversity are recommended by Policy 14 and discussed in more detail in the natural character section of this website. They aim to promote restoration or rehabilitation of indigenous habitats in the coastal environment. Methods include identifying areas and opportunities for restoration, using statutory tools (such as regional and district RMA documents) to encourage restoration to be undertaken, and imposing resource consent conditions, particularly for degraded areas.

In addition, non-regulatory methods are essential to support the restoration of biodiversity and are a key way to achieve the vision sought by the NZCPS 2010. Approaches such as providing education, technical support and financial incentives to coast care groups and private landowners are one of the main ways positive change can be achieved on the ground. In addition, the promotion and facilitation of permanent legal protection is a crucial tool to protect and restore biodiversity. Many of these methods can be provided for, and be supported through, regulatory plans as well as other statutory documents. For additional information on these methods see the biodiversity section of this website.

Best Practice Planning Elements

Regional and district plans can include the following in order to achieve preservation of coastal biodiversity:

(1) Identify significant natural ecosystems and sites of biological importance

Local and regional authorities should identify significant natural ecosystems and sites of biological importance within their jurisdiction, including those in the coastal marine area, and identify them on maps and/or in a Significant Natural Area schedule attached to their regulatory plan. An alternative approach is to define significant ecosystem types.

  • Include sites within near-shore and intertidal areas, estuaries, dunes and coastal land as well as marine areas
  • Spatially identify the location of significant areas and habitats within district and regional plans, using a schedule or maps
  • Where it is not practicable to identify significant vegetation and significant habitats in advance, include robust and ecologically valid criteria in the plan 3171  so that the actual spatial areas can be identified during the resource consenting process. Rules may then be included to place restrictions on certain activities within areas that meet the criteria
  • Adopt a hybrid approach where specific identified areas are incorporated into plans using a schedule or map and criteria or ecosystem types are specified for the identification of additional areas
  • Sites of biological importance in the coastal environment may include those that provide habitat for significant life functions such as juvenile nursery habitats, feeding grounds, spawning habitats and areas that provide for the transition from larval to benthic phases during the lifecycle of marine organisms
  • Include the entire habitats of threatened species on coastal land, in coastal freshwater bodies and in the marine areas including migratory routes

Example: Inventory of coastal areas of local or regional significance in the Taranaki Region

The purpose of the Inventory is to provide information on coastal areas of local or regional significance in the Taranaki region, and to provide information on public access to the coastal marine area. Further, the Inventory identifies where subdivisions have occurred in the coastal area since 1999. The Inventory is intended to facilitate statutory bodies in their decision-making on the management of public access and development in the coastal area. Ecological or scientific sites of value include areas or features that contain rare and endangered indigenous flora or fauna; are of scientific interest; are important or unique coastal environment ecosystems; or contain spawning, nursery or feeding areas for marine animals.

(2) Identify locations where certain activities are inappropriate

Regional policy statements and plans should identify areas of the coastal environment where particular activities are inappropriate due to their proximity to taxa, ecosystems, habitats and areas identified in accordance with Policy 11.

  • Develop objectives, policies and rules which restrict development in areas of high ecological sensitivity and in areas with high natural values
  • Control development and active ties within the broader catchment where they may result in discharges into areas of the coastal environment which have biodiversity importance
  • Spatially identify sensitive areas on a map in the relevant planning instrument
  • Implement buffer areas around the relevant taxa, ecosystems, habitats and areas identifying where specified activities should not take place

Example: Whakatāne district Bylaws

These bylaws prohibit the use of vehicles on any beach within Whakatāne District. This is to protect indigenous sandbinding plants and the nests of the New Zealand dotterel. An exception is made for vehicles launching boats and those used by officials and rescue services.

(3) Develop appropriate objectives, policies and methods (statutory and non-statutory) to protect coastal biodiversity

Protecting coastal fauna, flora and habitats from inappropriate activities is important to retain coastal biodiversity values.

  • Support the development of linkages between terrestrial forest, dune systems, estuaries and the marine environment
  • Protect native coastal vegetation to support natural succession
  • Promote vegetation and habitat corridors and ‘stepping stones’ for wildlife
  • Support the protection and re-establishment of riparian areas and coastal margins
  • Protect different habitat types which act as a buffer between the land and the sea
  • Protect important marine habitats
  • Retain estuaries and wetlands as buffers or filters for contaminants and sediments
  • Provide for financial and other incentives for landowners to covenant land for coastal biodiversity protection purposes
  • Support the establishment of beach care and coast care restoration groups, and restoration and protection in surrounding catchments
  • Provide for the maintenance and enhancement of coastal reserve land to ensure it is kept in a weed and pest free state

Example: Waikato Regional Policy Statement

Protect indigenous biodiversity in the coastal environment by:

a) avoiding adverse effects on:

i.  indigenous taxa listed as ‘Threatened’ or ‘At Risk’ in the New Zealand Threat Classification System lists or taxa1 listed as threatened by the International Union of Nature and Natural Resources;

ii. habitats of indigenous species where the species are listed as Threatened or At Risk, are at the limit of their natural range, or are naturally rare;

iii. areas containing nationally significant examples of indigenous community types;

iv. indigenous ecosystems and vegetation types that are threatened in the coastal environment, or are naturally rare; and

v. areas set aside for full or partial protection of indigenous biological diversity under legislation

b) maintaining or enhancing:

i. areas used by marine mammals and wading/coastal birds including breeding, feeding, roosting and haul-out sites (areas where marine mammals come ashore);

ii. whitebait spawning areas and shellfish beds;

iii. habitats, corridors and routes important for preserving the abundance and diversity of indigenous and migratory species;

iv. indigenous habitats and ecosystems that are unique to the coastal environment and vulnerable to modification and the impacts of climate change, including estuaries, lagoons, coastal wetlands, dunelands, rocky reef systems, seagrass and saltmarsh;

v. habitats of indigenous species that are important for recreational, commercial, traditional or cultural purposes; and

vi. areas of predominately indigenous vegetation in the coastal environment.

(4) Set accompanying rules and consent conditions to control coastal activities

Provide appropriate rules and conditions of consent to control the impact of coastal subdivision and development on biodiversity.

  • Require adequate setbacks for coastal development and subdivision from the coast
  • Require buffer zones to maintain some distance between the important sites and the works being undertaken
  • Relocate existing structures (such as roads and infrastructure) away from sensitive habitats including those on the coastal edge
  • Schedule works to avoid ecologically important periods
  • Control extent of earthworks
  • Control extent and type of vegetation clearance
  • Exclude domestic pets where required
  • Impose covenants to protect existing important habitat and require the provision of esplanade reserves, strips or reserve contributions as these can provide refuges or habitats for wildlife and offer important stepping stones for birds and animals
  • Impose a requirement to rehabilitate a site through planting after completion of the works
  • Require fencing of estuaries or riparian margins to exclude stock

Example: Kapiti Coast District Council Best Practice Subdivision and Development Guide

This guide includes a section dedicated to responding to the coastal landform which provides guidance on appropriate design for coastal subdivisions and developments. One of the benefits of this approach is the preservation of the ecology of the coast. The Council will consider the investment in ecological retention as a significant positive effect (compared to the ‘conventional’ alternatives) when considering consent applications.

Best Practice Design Elements

Coastal activities which are designed to avoid adverse impacts on coastal biodiversity should include the following elements where they are relevant.

(1) Create and restore vegetated buffer areas

The inclusion of buffer areas between important coastal habitats and development will help to protect coastal biodiversity.

  • Identify key natural habitats and features which require buffers
  • Include appropriate sized buffer areas along riparian and coastal margins
  • Fence off these areas to protect the plants and animals from stock, vehicles and foot traffic
  • Revegetate and maintain buffers between coastal bird populations and urban development
  • Use locally-sourced indigenous plants, that are appropriate to the site
  • Include important linkage areas
  • Implement regular weed and pest control
  • Integrate with management of existing protected areas

Undesirable example: Ngunguru Bay, Whangarei District

The location of the houses close to the beachfront and lack of any significant vegetative buffer provides little habitat for local flora and fauna.

Ngunguru Bay (Credit: Raewyn Peart)

Desirable example: Proctors Beach, Northland

Weed control using on-site mobile compost bins containing hand pulled ice plant weeds helps to protect local native plants.


(2) Prohibit domestic pets in subdivisions near sensitive coastal areas

The prohibition of domestic pets in some coastal subdivisions is important to help protect sensitive coastal bird habitats. Domestic cats can kill native birds and other small animals, thereby negatively impacting on the biodiversity of local coastal environments

  • Covenant land titles to exclude the keeping of domestic pets
  • Develop body corporate rules to prohibit keeping of cats where appropriate
  • Support self-policing measures in the area

Desirable example: Bream Tail, Kaipara District

To protect native wildlife on the property cats and mustelids are prohibited and property owners may keep no more than two dogs.

Bream Tail (Credit: Raewyn Peart)


(3) Provide for restoration of coastal forest

In particular, provide for restoring the natural succession between the coastal edge, dunes, woody areas and coastal forest. The Dunes Restoration Trust of New Zealand has some valuable resources for restoring coastal forest areas.

  • Identify key natural habitats and features which require restoration
  • Fence off these areas to protect the plants and animals from stock, vehicles and unmanaged foot traffic
  • Replant retired areas with indigenous coastal forest species
  • Where possible, use locally-sourced indigenous vegetation for replanting
  • Implement regular weed and pest control

Undesirable example: Stock in a coastal wetland

Stock allowed into coastal wetlands can impact on biodiversity values through damaging indigenous vegetation and soils

Mangere Wetland (Credit: Raewyn Peart)


Desirable example: Te Henga (Bethells Beach), Auckland

Low lying dune hollows have been successfully restored to allow native species to regenerate naturally

Bethells (Credit: Raewyn Peart)


(4) Permanently protect important biodiverse areas

Provide tools for the permanent protection of areas of indigenous vegetation and habitat from future development.

  • Design development to avoid important natural habitats and features
  • Require Reserves Act, Queen Elizabeth II Trust or Nga Whenua Rahui covenants to be registered on the land title to protect significant areas in perpetuity
  • Protect existing and replanted native bush areas by stock-proof fencing and regular weed and pest control
  • Ensure management decisions consider effects on protected areas

Undesirable example: Tutukākā Peninsula, Whangarei district

The encroachment of development into areas of coastal forest increases risks to indigenous species

Tutukākā Development (Credit: Raewyn Peart)


Desirable example: Ocean Beach, Hastings district

Predator-proof fencing allows native vegetation and birdlife to regenerate

Ocean Beach, Whangarei (Credit: Raewyn Peart)

  1. Brake L and R Peart, 2012, Treasuring our biodiversity: An EDS Guide to the protection of New Zealand’s indigenous habitats and species, Environmental Defence Society, Auckland, at 65

  2. Brake L and R Peart, 2012, Treasuring our biodiversity: An EDS Guide to the protection of New Zealand’s indigenous habitats and species, Environmental Defence Society, Auckland, at 64

  3. Brake L and R Peart, 2012, Treasuring our biodiversity: An EDS Guide to the protection of New Zealand’s indigenous habitats and species, Environmental Defence Society, Auckland, at 65

  4. Brake L and R Peart, 2012, Treasuring our biodiversity: An EDS Guide to the protection of New Zealand’s indigenous habitats and species, Environmental Defence Society, Auckland, at 65


  6. NZCPS 2010, 16

  7. Williams P, S Wiser, B Clarkson and M C Stanley, 2007, ‘New Zealand’s historically rare terrestrial ecosystems set in a physical and physiognomic framework’, New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 31: 119-123. This can be accessed online:

  8. Greater Wellington Regional Policy Statement, Policy 22

Last updated at 4:49PM on February 2, 2018