Communities in Pātea and Hawera have found that life in their backyard ocean is far from grey and boring, with many creatures being just as colourful and fascinating as their tropical cousins.
The joint initiative, known as the South Taranaki Reef Life Project, brings together local dive club members, schools, biologists, engineers, iwi, fishers and other community groups to study the rich marine life on a horseshoe-shaped reef 11 kilometres off Pātea.
These citizen scientists spend a vast amount of volunteer time surveying and documenting the reef community to identify seasonal trends and find out what factors shape it.
There are many tools the communities use in monitoring the reef. The most impressive is an automated underwater camera, which electrical engineer Leith Robertson customised to withstand taking photos at the bottom of Taranaki’s tempestuous sea for weeks on end – while running on just battery power.
Other techniques include sound recordings, seabed snapshots, scuba diving observations, and measuring fish that were line-caught and released.
“I really enjoyed going out on the boat because I’ve never been on a boat or done fishing before, and it was a great experience,” says 13-year-old Charlotte from Pātea Area School.
Hawera High School student Niall, 14, adds, “I really liked learning how to do the fishing. My favourite part was finding the carpet shark.”
Niall explains that the process involved catching one or two fish at a time, quickly weighing and measuring them and then releasing them back into the ocean.
The students did this three times during different seasons and found lots more blue cod (rawaru; pakirikiri; pātutuki) compared to other species of fish, with nearly 130 blue cod in total. This suggests that the reef is an important home for blue cod, which is actually more commonly found south of the Cook Strait.
The young researchers also contributed to the seabed survey, where divers placed quadrats – square frames that help scientists measure how rich life on the ground is – randomly on the sea floor and took a photograph of the square and everything inside it.
Using a computer programme, and with help from marine scientists Thomas McElroy and Josh Richardson, the students identified lots of different species in each photo.
The most prominent finding was just how many sponges they saw.
Project co-manager Karen Pratt explains, “There’s an international database of ocean life called OBIS, which in 2013 only had one sponge marker in its map of our region. But we’ve actually found loads.”
When asked how many sponges they have found, Karen and Thomas say they think it might be around fifteen different species – many of which are found only in New Zealand.
The project has also involved the wider community by setting up a project page called CoastBlitz Pātea on the online citizen science database NatureWatch NZ. Locals can upload information and photos of what species they see, and experts can help them to identify what they have spotted.
“This started off as one project on its own and now, kind of like how a reef develops, lots of other little projects have joined together to become part of it,” Karen says.
The members of the South Taranaki Underwater Club are also preparing a submission to the Taranaki Region Council - supported by these findings - to ask that the reef be recognised as having 'outstanding value' in the Coastal Plan that the council are currently updating, in an effort to better protect the reef.
Anne-Marie Broughton (Ngaa Rauru Kiitahi), Kaiwhakahaere (General Manager) of Te Kaahui O Rauru, tells us, "This work is so important because it’s clear that we have an abundance of life out there that we don’t know about, but are now starting to find out.
"We’re so lucky to have so many different kinds of people working together on helping us protect and preserve our environment."
Photo credits: Josh Richardson (crab and jewel anemone), Fiona McRae-Plumtree (fishing), Karen Pratt (montage), Bruce Boyd (montage photographs and the nudibranchs) and Nicole Miller (carpet shark, divers).