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Oceans threatened on multiple fronts – Expert Reaction

Our oceans and coasts are feeling the pressure on all fronts as the cumulative effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and human activities take their toll, according to a report from the Ministry for the Environment.

Our marine environment 2019 outlines the state of New Zealand’s marine environment and the issues facing the life in our oceans and coastlines.

The report finds that human activities at sea, like shipping and trawling, and on land, like littering and sediment runoff, are polluting our marine environment. It also describes the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, including the climate-mitigating role of the ocean in absorbing carbon dioxide, which makes the oceans warmer, more acidic and causes the water to expand and threaten our coastlines.

The individual pressures are challenging enough, but the report notes that the interplay between them is likely to cause the most havoc.

The SMC gathered expert comment on the report, feel free to use these comments in your reporting. 

Professor Chris Battershill, Chair Coastal Science, University of Waikato, comments:

Our Marine Environment 2019 is a very timely State of the Environment report that provides a sobering summary of the parlous state of our marine domain. It correctly identifies the main compounding issues affecting the health and productivity of our seas.

“We are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of interacting impacts along our coasts, with massive sedimentary runoff exacerbated by increasingly harsh storms and rainfall events, warming and acidifying oceans combined with increasing inputs of nutrients and pollutants from overworked catchments and expanding seaside urban centres.

“When you consider that some of our river systems are delivering over 30 million tonnes of mud to the coast every year, the equivalent of over 80 farms’ worth of topsoil, we have a problem for both terrestrial and marine economic sectors. As a consequence of the sedimentary fallout, we are losing the productivity of our coastal algal forests in now murky waters and the fine sediment is smothering what used to be important nursery grounds for many of our fisheries species. Our EEZ occupies about 1% of the Earth’s surface, yet we have over 14% of the world’s marine species within our continental shelf marine seabed environments. Most of these are unique globally. We are losing them fast.

“In December 2011, immediately following the MV Rena grounding and pollution event, the then Minister for the Environment identified that the mauri of Otaiti (Astrolabe) Reef needed to be restored. The formal recognition that not only the biophysical health of the marine environment needed to be considered, but also its spiritual wellbeing, heralded a deeper understanding of the issues facing our natural heritage for the general public. The health of our lands is directly connected to the health of our coasts, and both affect us.”

No conflict of interest.

Prof Mary Sewell, Department of Marine Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends from the Kermadec Islands in the North to the Subantarctic Islands in the South. We have limited understanding of our marine biodiversity on mainland New Zealand, but with an even greater knowledge gap on biodiversity at our warmest and coldest extremes.

“When we think of the oceans we tend to think of fish or important invertebrate kaimoana (e.g. paua, crayfish, kina). Yet, some of the most important organisms to a healthy marine ecosystem are the plants: from the microscopic photosynthetic organisms in the plankton, to the seagrass meadows, to the saltmarsh habitats and, in northern New Zealand, the mangroves. These provide oxygen for us to breathe, capture and store carbon, and are important habitats for both invertebrates and fish.

“The marine environment cannot be considered in isolation from the catchment which feeds it – improving the marine environment means addressing levels of pollutants (nutrients, plastic) in the freshwater streams and river that arrive in the ocean.

“Many taonga species cross the marine-freshwater boundary during their life-time – e.g. whitebait and tuna (long-finned eels), both of which are threatened, or at risk of extinction. It is important that we consider this document in companion with the recommendations of Our Freshwater 2017, and as a country start to have some difficult conversations: such as is it OK to eat the babies of inanga and kokupu (whitebait) when we would not even consider eating babies of taonga such as kiwi or tuatara?

“How can we as individuals improve the health of our marine environment? Three simple things come to mind: don’t litter on land as it can reach the ocean (Be a Tidy Kiwi); don’t pour anything toxic like fuel, paint, or thinners down the drains at home; and don’t take more kaimoana than you need (even if this is less than the legal limits). Start thinking about what you are leaving for future generations when you make decisions today.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Libby Liggins, Senior Lecturer in Marine Evolutionary Ecology, Massey University, comments:

“It is fantastic that as a nation we are being proactive in embracing citizen science and Te Ao Māori, involving the wider community in the dialogue, and the solution. There is broader scope for similar citizen science initiatives, however. Although technology has advanced and now allows us to track the physical changes in the ocean, the impacts of these changes to our biodiversity (beyond primary productivity) are not so tractable.

“Since the last report, there has been little change to the marine taxa that are classified as data deficient. We have a focus on those that have been well monitored in the past – including the endangered species and the most invasive – but we know little about the majority of taxa that constitute our marine communities and sustain these ecosystems. Considering the interaction between our native and non-native species, and climate change, the lack of baseline data for many of our marine organisms, such as fishes, actually makes it difficult to distinguish what is native versus non-native, let alone determine trends in these species.

“Scientists do not have the time-series to track the declines or changes for the vast majority of our marine species, nor do we have a baseline started. We need greater efforts to consolidate our collective knowledge – scientists, mana whenua and all citizens – toward this goal.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have active research in consolidating data from scientific and citizen sources pertaining to native/non-native statuses of marine fishes in New Zealand, and their responses to physical changes in our marine environment.

Associate Professor Karen Stockin, Marine Mammal Biologist, Massey University, Rutherford Discovery Fellow, comments:

“It is great to see the release of this much-needed report on our marine environment. This report represents an informative volume of work and as such, I offer my warm congratulations to all contributors. That said, speaking in my capacity as a marine mammal scientist, I did feel the report missed some key concerns facing threatened marine mammals in New Zealand.

“For example, a discussion of broader threats beyond just commercial fisheries bycatch appeared limited, especially for threated species such as Hector’s and Māui dolphins, where we know there is a presence of toxoplasmosis. This disease is usually associated with immune suppression (as is the case in other species, including humans).

“Legacy contaminants linked to immune suppression, such as DDT and PCBs, have been explored in New Zealand marine mammals and reported in notable concentrations within the scientific literature. Perhaps of more concern, is the absence of discussion around broader, newly emerging contaminants of concern such as PFAS, which despite evoking an all-government agency response, didn’t get a mention in this current report either.

“The population decline in bottlenose dolphins, which has seen this species listed as endangered and a subsequent ban on swim-with operations in the Bay of Islands, also was omitted. While ship strike on Bryde’s whales did feature, a broader discussion of both direct and indirect vessel impacts faced by other threatened species including Hector’s and bottlenose dolphins would also have offered a broader view of such threats, which as the literature demonstrate, extend beyond just commercial shipping traffic.

“I reiterate my support of this report and its contributors. Tackling the issues within and affecting our marine environment is a sizeable and difficult exercise – one that to some extent, that will remain as work in progress as new and emerging threats come to light.”

Conflict of interest statement: Principal Investigator on the New Zealand marine mammal stressors and anthropogenic impacts study (including ecotoxicology), contributing expert to the scientific advisory group for the Hector’s and Māui Dolphin Threat Management Plan.

Dr Karen Fisher, Theme Lead – Enhancing ecosystem-based management practices, Sustainable Seas Challenge, comments:

“The report rightly identifies cumulative effects as one of the most urgent and complex issues facing Aotearoa’s coasts and oceans. Improving monitoring to address information gaps that hinder our understanding is important – but only part of the story. We need urgent action to change the way cumulative effects are managed.

“Aotearoa’s coastal and marine management is covered by 25 statutes that govern 14 agencies and operate across 7 geographic jurisdictions. Each deals with cumulative effects differently – but stressors such as pollutants and climate change cross these jurisdictional and geographic boundaries.

“A consistent, holistic, ki uta ki tai (mountains to deep sea) strategy is the only feasible way to tackle cumulative effects. The good news is that there are collaborations happening between central government agencies, local and regional councils, iwi, industry and community groups to tackle this, but I worry about the pace of change – time is of the essence.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Matt Pinkerton, Principal Scientist, marine ecology and remote sensing, NIWA, comments:

“Reading Our marine environment 2019, my first reaction is how did we get into this mess? Large scale climate change, accelerating biodiversity loss, more invasive species, increasing pollution… The challenges that New Zealand faces are not materially different from those elsewhere in the world.

“Indeed, New Zealand sits astride the Subtropical Front, which supports our most valuable fisheries on the Chatham Rise, and in this area, ocean productivity is increasing – so it is not all doom and gloom.

“The other key findings of the report are the lack of adequate information on most issues affecting our marine environment, and the fact that different pressures interact and can reinforce each other creating complex threats.

“Where do we go as a nation from here? It is clear that the past is an increasingly unreliable indication of the future so we will need to do things differently. It is not possible to fight the many-headed challenges facing our marine environment without better long-term information on the issues facing our coasts and oceans. And getting better information means harnessing the burgeoning power of new technology for ocean observation.

“This report should be a call to arms to New Zealand: we need to commit to better marine observation, to improving our scientific understanding of complex threats, and to developing innovative, cross-agency approaches to managing, using and protecting our marine environment.”

Conflict of interest statement: Matt is a member of the MfE Technical Advisory Group on marine indicators. He was also a reviewer for this report for MfE. In addition, he has also authored a report under contract for MfE on temperature and ocean productivity indicators (Satellite indicators of phytoplankton and ocean surface temperature for New Zealand).

Linda Faulkner, Manahautū/Deputy Director Māori, Sustainable Seas Challenge, comments:

“I’m really pleased to see that the report acknowledges that Māori ways of knowing and doing have to be part of the solution when addressing the issues our marine ecosystems face – otherwise it won’t be fit for purpose for Aotearoa. Historically, mātauranga and tikanga Māori haven’t been fully considered or their potential recognised.

“Bringing together the two worldviews of Te Ao Māori and western science will benefit all New Zealanders, by bringing together the best of traditional and contemporary ways of knowing to inform decision-making and practice. Improving the way Māori knowledge, practice and interests can inform, guide and partner in marine management isn’t a nice-to-have – it’s essential.”

No conflict of interest.