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The country’s single largest marine research investment with a $70 million 10-year scope – titled Sustainable Seas – is more than halfway through its life. Yet it has received little publicity and public comment. TIM PANKHURST reports:

The programme has engaged hundreds of researchers in virtually every scientific and tertiary institution across multi disciplines on multiple projects throughout the land.

Is it delivering, or is it a bonanza for academics, an opportunity to pursue pet projects at public expense?

Such an assessment is not easy to make.

Wading through scientific jargon, dense reports, graphs, charts, projections is heavy going, like crossing a silt-filled estuary, and in any case, what is the measure of success?

The Challenge is required to report annually to its funder, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

One of many key performance indicators include two innovative products being delivered to industry annually in Phase I, stepping up to three per annum in the current Phase II developed to support industry and policy development decision making and resource utilisation.

Industry is defined as all marine users, including fishing, aquaculture, oil and gas, tourism, mining, ports, shipping.

The first KPI report in 2016-17 lists these as “The Ecosystem Connectivity project, in conjunction with NZ King Salmon, sampled around mussel farms and set up mesocosm experiments to test how artificial feed flows through organisms and mussel farms”.

Also listed was “defining parameters for the Tasman/ Golden bays Atlantis model”. The latter was done in conjunction with Southern Inshore Fisheries and Challenge Scallop Enhancement Company and is described as “an end-to-end ecosystem modelling tool, it encompasses everything from sunlight and nutrients through to predators and fisheries”.

The Atlantis model gets another rating in 2017-18, this time for its completion and presentation and workshops and stakeholder meetings.

The second year this KPI achievement is “decision support tools that can be used to optimize utilisation in multiple use areas of the seafloor being well socialized among stakeholders”.

In 2018-19 the successes are listed as “co-developing methods for extracting three bioactive compounds from kina with Hikurangi Enterprises” and “rapid assessment tool for power output for tidal farm scenarios proof of concept development collaboratively with MetOcean Solutions and Cawthron Institute”.

Moving to the stepped-up Phase II in 2019-20, the three Innovative products developed to support industry and policy development decision making and resource utilisation considered to be met are:

·       Mountain to sea forecasting near real time of bacterial contamination in Tasman/Golden bays operational on MetOceanView portal allowing aquaculture industry, regional councils and public to visualise coastal contamination events.

·       System maps developed for marine ecosystem stressors in Hawke’s Bay and Tasman/Golden bays to test systems mapping methodology.

·       Ecosystem service maps of nutrient processing by shellfish in Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds identifying critical habitats needed to support ecosystem health.

  • In its 2020 annual report to MBIE, the Challenge highlights focus on cumulative effects, providing a better understanding of how multiple stressors interact and tools to aid decision making.
  • “Findings from a number of projects – ranging from a framework for collaboration between government agencies to the practicalities of data collection for environmental monitoring – have been used by the Ministry for the Environment, Resource Management Act reform panel and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and regional councils.”
  • It references an open access interactive model (www. oceansplasticsimulator.nz) that shows how floating plastic waste moves around the coastline. “Its purpose is to introduce ocean connectivity to school students, as a route to raise public awareness of the issues around marine management. It includes a section about the importance of the ocean to Maori and their connections with the moana.” The underlying mathematics of this model are now being used to undertake impact assessments for aquaculture and tracking the origins of mussel spat.

Other projects include mitigation of ocean acidification around mussel farms; aquaculture social licence to operate including changes in wording to send more empowering messages; habitat provision in Queen Charlotte Sound; nitrogen removal potential in Whitford estuary; testing efficacy of natural fibres to grow mussel spat; and a newly announced giant community artwork made from rope which was funded under a $920k navigating marine socioecological system project that sees “art as a powerful communicator of science”

Sustainable Seas is one of 11 National Science Challenges established in 2014 by the Key Government with a massive total $680 million funding over 10 years aimed at “tackling the biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand”.

They also encompass: a better start; ageing well; building better homes, towns and cities; healthier lives; high value nutrition; New Zealand’s biological heritage; our land and water; resilience to Nature’s challenge; science for technical innovation; the Deep South.

The marine-based Challenge does issue regular public reports in various formats but could benefit from more accessible, targeted updates on progress, equally to herald its successes, to keep all those concerned focused and up to the mark and to allay suspicions that some of the work is too esoteric to be of value.

The same no doubt applies to all of the Challenges, where so much public money is committed.

The stated aim of the National Science Challenges is “to take a strategic approach to the Government’s science investment by targeting a series of goals which will have major and enduring benefits and will answer questions of national significance to New Zealand”.

It continues: “The Challenges provide an opportunity to align and focus New Zealand’s research on large and complex issues by drawing scientists together from different institutions and across disciplines to achieve a common goal.”

What are those questions of national significance and common goals?

For Sustainable Seas, moving to a holistic ecosystem based management (EBM) approach to marine management and stimulating a blue economy are the aim.

“There are many and growing uses of New Zealand’s marine environment – some of which are competing,” the Challenge says. “How can we best develop our marine economy, while protecting the taonga of our marine environment.”

How indeed?

Does that pre-determined EBM aim not risk compromising existing rights and legislation?

Absolutely not, says Dr Julie Hall, National Institute of Water and Atmospherics Research-based Director of Sustainable Seas.

“EBM must take into account existing rights and legislation and we have put more focus on this in Phase II in the Enhancing EBM Practices theme.”

She refers to the 2015 business plan at the inception of the project that states the objective set by MBIE for Sustainable Seas is “to enhance utilisation of our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints”.

“The research and activities of the Challenge are focused on the development of an ecosystem-based approach to the management of our marine resource,” the plan says.

“EBM is a strategy that integrates management of natural resources, recognises the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, including human, and promotes both sustainable use and conservation in an equitable way.

“Successful implementation of EBM will enhance the sustainability of New Zealand’s marine resource and add value to the marine economy through a variety of pathways including product certification and provenance, increased investment, enhanced diversification and an increased social licence to operate. The Challenge will also develop a blue economy capability to generate short and long-term benefits for investors.”

Under the Phase II (2019-24) document “one of the measures of success is a vibrant blue economy, which is developing regionally and nationally, enabled by Sustainable Seas research”.

In Phase I the research was broken into seven programmes – valuable seas; tangaroa; dynamic seas; enabling EBM; managed seas; vision matauranga; our seas.

The descriptions of each are broad, with few specifics.

For instance, the valuable seas strand aims to “develop ways to incorporate economic, social, environmental, spiritual and cultural marine values in decision-making and identifying innovative ways to add value to the marine economy”.

The Our Seas programme is equally abstract, its purpose to develop “ways to enhance engagement and participation across all sectors of society, resulting in more efficient and effective decision-making”.

“There is much stronger focus in Phase II to make the research more accessible,” Hall says.

That research has been refocused into six ‘issues-based’ research themes, reflecting (i) the real-life interdisciplinary situation and (ii) input from Maori partners + Stakeholders during our consultation around developing Phase II strategy.

These themes are:

  • Tangaroa
  • Blue Economy
  • Degradation & recovery
  • Risk & uncertainty
  • Enhancing EBM Practices
  • EBM and BE in Action

A perceived lack of emphasis on the Fisheries Act 1996, which has the fundamental aim of providing for the utilisation of fisheries resources whilst ensuring sustainability, or the Quota Management System that underpins the fisheries regime, provoked some concern within the commercial fisheries sector.

Those rumbles led to a meeting of fisheries sector groups with Julie Hall and the chair of the Sustainable Seas Governance Group Sir Rob Fenwick, who died last year, in Auckland in 2018.

Fenwick was receptive to industry concerns.

“If the fishing industry feels it is being left out, it will be counterproductive,” he said.

“We do need to keep you happy. You are our customers.”

The upshot was a change to the blue economy Innovation Fund focus to more specifically support partnerships between Maori/industry and researchers. and encouragement for the seafood sector to submit research proposals (see sidebar). It was also agreed better communication and more specifics about outcomes and economic benefits were required.

There are now eight projects under an Innovation Fund umbrella with implications for the seafood commercial sector:

  • Patangaroa hua rua – the economic potential of collagen and bioactives from eleven-armed seastar which is a nuisance species in some harbours
  • Kohunga kutai –use of natural fibres to reduce mussel spat loss from lines and drawing on matauranga Maori
  • Preventing sun-induced skin damage with New Zealand algae-derived bioactives
  • Whakaika te moana – a hapu approach to aquaculture
  • Sustainable future for toheroa aquaculture; biology and engineering
  • Growing community wellbeing with patiki totara (yellow belly flounder) aquaculture
  • Applying tikanga Maori practice in iwi fisheries
  • Quantifying and reducing interactions between commercial fishing gear and the seafloor

The Innovation Fund sits under the Blue Economy theme, which has five projects:

  • Transitioning to a blue economy
  • Encouraging restorative economies in New Zealand marine spaces
  • Indigenising the blue economy in Aotearoa which has a strong focus on fisheries
  • Growing ecotourism
  • Building a blue economy sector – seaweed

In total, Sustainable Seas encompasses around 250 researchers, 37 different organisations and up to 32 projects in Phase II

“It’s a big beast alright,” Hall says.

Dogged and determined, Hall is undaunted by its scale.

“It is challenging and complex. Leadership is about developing a strategy and research programme with Maori partners and stakeholders to address the Challenge Objective and ensuring the research has impact.

“It goes across disciplines – research, policy, legislation and matauranga Maori – and that is world leading. We have an independent science review panel from outside New Zealand and the message from them is this is the strongest inter-disciplinary project they’ve seen.”

In 2015, Hall, then a NIWA regional manager for Wellington, applied for the role of Sustainable Seas Challenge Director.

Her PhD is in microbiology, measuring copper and zinc toxicity to algae in freshwater, and she had leadership experience chairing an international research programme on the impact of global change on marine ecosystems.

So, in 2025 when the 10-year project wraps up and $70 million has been spent, what will be the measure of success?

Hall says full value will only be realised if the Challenge delivers results greater than the sum of the individual research projects.

She envisages a blue economy delivering new ways of thinking and working, stimulating new initiatives from tourism to seaweed.

And that a holistic EBM approach will influence legislation, incorporated in policy and regulations.

That approach is supported by Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker, who says “progress towards ecosystem-based management approach is a priority”.