Jobs at DOC: Wetlands scientist, Hugh Robertson

Department of Conservation —  14/11/2011

Every Monday Jobs at DOC takes you behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation.

This week we meet wetlands scientist, Hugh Robertson

At work…

Name: Hugh Allister Robertson

Position: Scientific Officer (Wetlands) based in the Freshwater Section of Research & Development, Christchurch

Hugh visiting a peatland restoration site in the Czech Republic

What kind of things do you do in your role?

I coordinate the scientific projects within the Arawai Kākāriki wetland restoration programme, together with a team of scientific, technical and operations staff. This programme aims to protect/restore three of New Zealand’s foremost freshwater/wetland systems—Awarua/Waituna in Southland, Ō Tū Wharekai (Ashburton Lakes/upper Rangitata River) in Canterbury, and the Whangamarino wetland in Waikato.

My work includes researching to understand the resilience of wetlands to changes in water quality and examines the effectiveness of wetland restoration in terms of making conservation gains. I also provide scientific advice to support the Ramsar Convention on wetlands of international importance.

Setting up a vegetation plot at Ashburton basin

What is the best part about your job?

Since coming back to New Zealand at the end of 2008 (following an eight year stint in Australia) it is hard to go past the deep pool of skilled and committed people within DOC, who collectively make it enjoyable to tackle conservation challenges.

With colleagues at Awarua wetlands

What is the hardest part about your job?

The scale of wetland loss and degradation. We still have a way to go in reducing our footprint on these fragile ecosystems and instilling freshwater conservation principles into land management.

Venturing into wetlands in the Te Anau basin - a magical place

What led you to your role in DOC?

I’d initially blame being surrounded by freshwater lakes growing up in Rotorua, and regular family fishing holidays to the mouth of the Motu River, Manukau Harbour and Coromandel. It was all down hill from then, and one way or another led to an opportunity to study shallow lakes at Otago, and floodplain wetland ecology in the drought stricken Murray-Darling Basin in Australia.

What was the highlight of your month just gone?

A recent field trip out on Waituna Lagoon to retrieve and then re-deploy salinity loggers with the Southland Conservancy and Environment Southland. We’re looking at the vulnerability of aquatic plants to changing water quality in this dynamic coastal lagoon. It’s a unique landscape, and also a Ramsar wetland, but is under stress from changes in land use in the catchment upstream.

Investigating the Waituna Lagoon opening site

The rule of three…

Three loves

  1. Exploring new places
  2. The company of friends and my partner
  3. The full moon in clear night skies

    Mountain biking at St James

Three pet peeves

  1. Cafés that serve really hot coffee
  2. People who take a while making their point (me included)
  3. Realising there’s a hole in my waders after the point of no return

Three foods

  1. Vintage cheddar
  2. Freshly baked bread
  3. Salted peanuts

 Three favourite places in New Zealand

  1. Lake Tarawera
  2. Huia in the Waitakere Ranges
  3. The expansive, near pristine, fens and bogs of the Te Anau Basin

Favourite movie, album, book

  1. Movie: Black Cat, White Cat—you’ve got to watch this if you haven’t seen it before.
  2. Album: It varies daily, but Radiohead’s OK Computer, anything with trumpets, live performances of Muse and Fat Freddy’s Drop.
  3. Book: Most stuff by Milan Kundera

Deep and meaningful…

What piece of advice would you tell your 18 year old self?

Go with your gut… while also considering advice from wise folk (mentors).

Who or what inspires you and why?

This is a tricky question to simplify or limit to one or two people. But I am ultimately inspired by those people that have kept on going, who have struggled on through whatever the world throws at them to achieve what they have set out to do, overcoming adversity. There are countless examples, and it’s something we’ve all had to do at one time or another.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Like the rest of my under 9’s soccer team, a professional football player. Back then, for Liverpool—today it would be Barcelona FC.

And now, if you weren’t working at DOC, what would you want to be?

Bernard Black (played by Dylan Moran) for his brutal honesty. If you’re a Black Books fan you may know the character.

If you could be any New Zealand native species for a day, what would you be and why?

Eleocharis acuta is a long-time favourite of mine. An emergent macrophyte from our marshes and swamps, it exudes soul and funk.

What piece of advice or message would you want to give to New Zealanders when it comes to conservation? 

Every little bit helps. Species loss, water quality decline, and other conservation issues are often slow to accumulate—restoring biodiversity is an incremental process too.