Creating meaningful connections to protect our marine environments

Department of Conservation —  23/03/2022

By Stew Robertson, Marine Reserve Ranger for Te Tai o Aorere – Tasman Bay. 

Before starting with DOC, I worked as a skipper in the Bay for 19 years. I have a deep passion for the health and wellbeing of our ocean.

Stew on the job.
📷: Mel McColgan.

I began my career in tourism before upskilling with a BSc in Biology and a diploma in Marine Studies. These helped me to communicate with people about what they were seeing, both above and below the waves. 

In 2017, while my wife and I were running our own eco-tourism business, we and some friends founded the Tasman Bay Guardians. Among other things, the Guardians deliver the Experiencing Marine Reserves programme, introducing hundreds of people to the wonders of the marine environment each year.

Spending every day actively seeking out and observing marine life gave me a deep understanding of the patterns and seasonal cycles of Tangaroa’s children in my local area.

Out and about at an Experiencing Marine Reserves snorkel trip.
📷: Helen Forsey.

I had always kept up with the current science around marine reserve monitoring and aspired to be part of it myself.

In 2019, I set about doing some basic video monitoring of our local reefs (outside the marine reserve), and used these videos to run a trial workshop with the Tasman Bay Guardians at our local marae, Te Awhina. Through this I began forging relationships with the local iwi, and Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui decided to fund some activities to get their whānau into the marine reserve.

Find out more about our marine reserves.
🎥: DOC.

Next, our business got involved with Sustainable Coastlines, and began conducting the three-monthly Litter Intelligence audit at Onetahuti (Tonga Island Marine Reserve) as part of our tour. This audit counts the type and amount of plastic litter found on beaches, which helps us to know where this litter is coming from and where it ends up.

Gathering good data will help us stop rubbish at the source. It’s great to work with citizen scientists on this project as it’s impactful research that also gets the local community involved. 

Rubbish collected at the high tide mark during a recent Litter Intelligence survey.
📷: Porirua City Council.

In 2020, I took on the role of our local marine reserve ranger. Finally, I can not only be involved in the research, but also co-ordinate and design the monitoring of the reserves and bring my own work under the cloak of DOC/Te Papa Atawhai.

Tonga Island, Horoirangi, and Long Island Marine Reserves fortunately had extensive, long-term research, started before they were protected as marine reserves. Most of this was done using Underwater Visual Census – a fancy term for scuba diving and counting fish.

Many of Aotearoa’s reserves hadn’t had this monitoring done, so it’s a testament to the hard work of the original scientists working here, as well as the dedicated Motueka District dive team.

Monitoring – why we do it

Part of my job with DOC is to help implement the new marine reserve monitoring programme across the local reserves. This programme intends to build on the knowledge we already have and identify the key things that we need to monitor to know that our reserves are healthy or need help.

I am busy writing the plan for the reserves, working with the local community and iwi/hapū to create something that works for the reserves and the people who care about them. A large part of this plan will focus on taonga or key species such as blue cod, snapper, lobster, pāua and kina.

Marine reserves ensure that we are measuring an undisturbed population of marine species. Compliance is an important part of monitoring as it protects this most basic principle of marine reserves. Without fishing, these reserves set a ‘baseline’ to understand the other threats facing our oceans.

A lobster being measured under water.
📷: DOC.

My work is split between compliance and monitoring, and right now we are seeing a lot of new people out and about on the water.  We have the tools to be able to fine and prosecute offenders, and we can be out there at any hour keeping an eye on things. 

We have already noticed an improvement this summer, with fewer offences and incidents than last year.  We hope this is due to the effort we make to engage with the public, and to ensure everyone knows not just what the rules are, but also why we have them. It’s up to all of us to help educate people that fishing in the reserves is not okay and help them understand why.

Working with others

This summer I have been fortunate to have Kiara Duke, a Māori intern whose focus has been engaging mana whenua in marine reserve management. She’s worked so hard to help us to further ‘level up’ our obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and has enriched our local relationships with mana whenua. 

Kiara’s main achievement was project managing the Iwi Snorkel Day that we hosted in late January. We had originally planned the day back in 2020, but were scuppered by COVID-19. The day was a resounding success, and it was especially exciting seeing the tamariki getting immersed in the abundant life and crystal-clear waters of Tonga Quarry Beach.

Snorkel days, like this one at Tonga Island Marine Reserve, are an important way for people to connect to the local moana.
📷: Helen Forsey.

I’ve also been working with a local mana whenua and scientist at Cawthron Institute, Aneika Young, for several years, to develop a Marine Cultural Health Indicators Framework for Tasman Bay.  We held our first field trip recently and it was a dream realised to be out there with kaitiaki, sharing knowledge and looking at how we can mesh modern monitoring techniques with cultural techniques and insight.

This was the first of hopefully many trips out with kaitiaki. Developing this important framework should help fill in the gaps of Western science-based research and collaborate with mana whenua in a meaningful way. This will help inform decisions on future co-governance of the reserves and protection and restoration efforts in Te Tai o Aorere Tasman Bay.

The ideal is to have iwi/hapū/whānau and the public’s voices heard when it comes to marine protection. We work better together, create connections, and have a seat for everyone at the table. We make every effort to visually record our mahi, to tell this story.

What comes next?

On a personal level, the monitoring of the reserves has deepened my knowledge and connection to the bay. It’s not just about data collection; observing things like water quality, species behaviours, and abundance in a natural setting gives you a feeling for the mauri (lifeforce) of the place. Seeing huge aggregations of crayfish, blue cod, eagle rays and horse mussels has made my heart soar.

Baited underwater video (BUV) footage like this is an ideal technique for estimating the abundance of carnivorous species, such as blue cod. We need your help analysing the footage over at Spyfish Aotearoa.
📷: Monique Ladds/DOC.

I’ve also witnessed dark, turbid, and barren areas and am deeply aware of the threats our oceans face.  All is not as it should be. Our reserves are threatened by sedimentation, pollution, and climate change, they are often not big enough, and we can see a distinct decline in life as we get closer to the borders, an ‘edge effect’ caused by fishing pressure around the borders. Unfortunately, the smaller the reserve, the higher the proportion is affected.

This marine monitoring will help us to tell this story and bring the hard-to-see stories of our underwater places to the community.

If people aren’t connected to a place, then they won’t want to look after it. I can say with hand on heart that marine reserves truly work, and we need a lot more of them. We need to shift our consciousness from rights to responsibilities; we are all responsible to ensure abundance for our descendants. Creating protected areas free from exploitation is essential to ensure resilience of species and the wider ecosystem.

Working with tamariki, rangatahi, and the public, sitting on biodiversity working groups and committees, and getting out on the water is an honour and a privilege. This mahi has given me a unique insight, and I am learning every day. I hope that there will be many jobs like mine in the future, as we look forward to protecting more of Aotearoa’s precious marine environments.

Learn more about our marine protected areas and threatened species.

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