School of New Zealand trevally Pseudocaranx dentex above sandy bottom with kelp forest of Ecklonia radiata around and in background.

Why we need a socio-ecological approach to marine management: An interview with HB Regional Council marine scientist Anna Madarasz-Smith

As part of my research into Hawke’s Bay’s marine ecology (which informs consecutive feature articles in the Jan/Feb and Mar/Apr 2021 issues of BayBuzz), I sat down with marine scientist Anna Madarasz-Smith to discuss why Hawke’s Bay needs a systems-based socio-ecological approach to managing our coastal and marine areas. Here is that conversation in full.

ANNA: When we’re talking about management of the marine space, we’re looking at different factors that overlap: ecosystems and habitats, fisheries (which comes under MPI jurisdiction), and coastal-terrestrial linkages. 

Anna Madarasz-Smith, HBRC

The reason the Hawke’s Bay Marine and Coastal Group came into being, and part of the reason we’re currently part of a National Sustainable Seas project [applying an ecosystems-based management approach], is around these really different pieces of legislation that intersect: the RMA, the Fisheries Act, the Māori Fisheries Act, Biosecurity Act, Marine Mammals Act… they all have different roles and responsibilities, and we’re trying to work as a group to cut through that.

In terms of what the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is responsible for, coastal-terrestrial linkages and the ecosystem habitats are key for our kaimoana species, with stressors like increased sediment input into the coastal marine area and the physical disturbance of estuaries.

From the perspective of estuaries, for example, you’ve got cockles, which are susceptible to both sediment and faecal contaminants, but also to trace-metal contaminants. A particularly good study called He Moemoea mō Te Whanganui-a-Orotū looked at these sorts of parametres and whether or not they were effecting kaimoana species in the Ahuriri Estuary, and it showed certainly things like storm-water contaminants can effect stress on fish, particularly the flounder (they compared fish in Ahuriri estuary with those in Porangahau). In terms of effects on people’s health, faecal contaminants are of course an issue, but at the time they did the study (2007), they concluded you would have to eat significant amounts of cockles (60kg!) for the trace-metal contaminants in the storm-water to be an issue. But, certainly, the abundance of animals is impacted.

BRIDGET: I watched the November HBRC Environment Committee meeting online, where yourself and your colleague gave a presentation on where you’re at with your application for the next stage of the Sustainable Seas challenge, and there was some frustration voiced from councillors like Rick Barker and Neil Kirton at the glacial speed at which things progress, when it’s clear some activities have adverse impacts (i.e. let’s not dither and just stop trawl-fishing if it’s ripping up the seabed). I’d like you to speak a little bit about the systems-based model you’ve come up with and why there needs to be this kind of carefully, carefully, scientifically layered approach. 

ANNA: You don’t want to rush into anything and suddenly the unintended consequences outweigh the issues you were facing in the first place. There is a fine line between doing that and being able to say, ‘look, I don’t need to put my hand into the fire to know that it’s hot’ – there are some gut instincts that we can work on, but the way society is and the way people are, we do need to present evidence. 

Because there are costs, and you do need to be able to weigh up cost-benefits, and in order to assess those benefits you need to understand what the system response is going to be. It comes down to the difference in the uncertainty and the risk – if the risk’s low you’re more inclined to make that call; if it’s higher you’re more likely to want more information. It takes time when you’re trying to ensure you carry everyone with you, when you’re trying to achieve the best outcome for everyone in the room. 

BRIDGET: Careful groundwork is required if you’re to bring everybody on board, but also for it to really be used as a tool. 

There was that recent government estuaries report – Managing Our Estuaries – which various experts responded to, and Simon Thrush [director of the Institute of Marine Science at Auckland University] was pretty scathing. He said the report is more of a descriptive of the state of our estuaries and not enough about how the system functions, and we really need to know how the system functions in order to make progress. I’m wondering if some of this work that you’re doing, that seems quite painstaking – trying to find all the different levers and what happens when you push on this – is that helping towards that end of trying to understand more about the functioning of the system?

ANNA: Definitely. The work that people like Simon do really informs our own understanding. An outcome encompasses a whole heap of different interconnected relationships and interactions that form the function of what you’re wanting to achieve. You can think you’re going to reach an outcome but because the environment is a very complex being – it shifts, it changes, it’s dynamic, it’s resilient (it’s not a linear;  i.e. if you do x we get y) –  there are so many things that come into it, that you need to be adaptive, and you need to have a decent grounding. Again, it comes back to risk and consequence. You don’t need to do so much of that if the risk and consequences are low, but when those risks are higher, that’s when you need more information to be able to be comfortable to make those decisions.

Function is something that is very much the focus of marine science in the moment, particularly in the marine science work in NZ. What are the roles, what are the things that we will miss if a particular system wasn’t there or a particular area of a system wasn’t there – what are the consequences of that? 

BRIDGET: There are still so many gaps, aren’t there, in our knowledge of our coastal and marine ecosystems?

ANNA: Yes, even in so far as nutrient fluxes between the sediment or water, how that operates, what bugs or animals are important to the system to make that work. It’s as small as that, and then it’s as big as climate and the rest of it. 

We’re never going to have it perfect. We don’t understand systems enough – they don’t respond in a way that you would be able to, with certainty, predict outcomes. You can predict with good probability but there is no certainty in science. But as long as we’re on a pathway, we need to keep encouraging each other to continue on it and to keep asking is this the right path, are we getting the right results. It’s not as easy as saying, right we’ll do x and that will mean we get y. 

The outcome we’re after is a healthy, functioning system. We could ban inshore fishing – and that cost and risk profile is huge – but actually we’d find it’s the interaction of that coastal fishing plus sediment plumes coming down, plus new contaminants we don’t know about… The cost would have been really high but we wouldn’t have achieved our outcome. So, it needs to be a considered approach.

What’s exciting about this project, is, while I’m a physical scientist, there’s a socio-ecological shift through the systems-mapping process, which looks at things like the cultural aspects, the spirit of what the sea means for us – that’s a social good that’s very much connected with the physical. If the physical gets depauperate then the social gets depauperate too. 

BRIDGET: Over the last few years, there’s been an increase in monitoring our marine area, with underwater access through special cameras. What are we discovering about Hawke Bay or around our coasts, what are we seeing?

ANNA: If you can imagine cloud covering a third of the area of Hawke’s Bay, and then from above, dropping down in 8 or 9 spots, and then trying to describe from that the climate of Hawke’s Bay – what the region looks like, what land use there is. If you dropped down in the ranges and then on the plains, you’d think two different things. But that’s what we had in the marine space before the new technologies came on board that could map them broadscale – we were dropping down and then trying to describe from above a vast area based on these very few data points. 

The multi-beam studies that we’ve been doing with Niwa and MPI have been able to delineate the areas of Hawke Bay that we knew to exist but didn’t quite know where, or the extent, or their current substrate type. For example, the Clive and Wairoa Hards, which had substrate gravels and were known to play an integral role for fisheries; they were both closed to net fishing (the Wairoa in 1981) and studied in 1997 and then left. We didn’t know if the original function was still there, if anything had changed.

The multi-beam says here are your areas of reef, here are your areas of cobble, then the rod goes down and shows us: we’ve got a kelp forest here, these sorts of fish are aggregating there. A key ecological areas report has recently been done by Niwa (it’s in draft), which looks at all the different model information and assesses it again criteria; they may be able to identify areas of importance, in terms of their function and rarity, we didn’t know about.

It’s been exciting. We’ve seen a lot of fish activity on the Wairoa Hard but not much algae, which has led us to wonder whether we could actively regenerate it, for example through algal transplants, would that work? It’s not just about passively identifying, it’s about trying to understand the structure and also help it, just as we do on land. 

BRIDGET: Down the coast towards Porangahau, against the odds, there are growing seagrass meadows, but what are our other biogenic habitats? We used to have horse mussel beds in Hawke Bay, as I understand it…

ANNA: We used to have quite prolific horse mussel beds and normal mussel beds. Seagrass – there’s been a 90% decline in the last 40 years, especially in places like Tauranga. But we’re seeing increases in the Porangahau estuary, in the mid-tidal zone along Kairākau reef, etc. It’s a good news story but we don’t understand why. And it’s happening in other places around NZ, these seagrass meadows coming back, really good news because they are so important for those fishery connections.

There are a number of other biogenic habitats, but there are stresses on those from fisheries activities, from sediment-based depositions, etc. We don’t have a huge understanding, so we’re funding a PhD student at Waikato University to look at a hydrant-dynamic model coupled with sediment delivery so that we get a better understanding of what’s coming out of the river, how it moves around our coastal system, and where it ends up. 

BRIDGET: Solutions for sediment – that’s a massive one. That’s our land-based activities, but not only, we have our natural coastal erosions happening too.

ANNA: It’s about the magnitude and scale—there are already things like HBRC’s erosion-control scheme that’s in place, which is not just for the benefit of the marine system, it’s for the benefit of the land:  soil productivity, soil quality. I think, but don’t quote me on this, it takes 1000 years to create soil. So, it’s a win-win, to keep it in where it should be. It’s what grows our food, what creates the micro-organisms that drives climate…

BRIDGET: Increasingly we’re becoming aware that everything is interconnected – what you do in one part of the environment is going to affect another, there’s consequences or downstream effects.

ANNA: And that goes back to risk and uncertainty, and the unintended consequences of rushing into an action without understanding it. You don’t have to get it perfect, but you do have to have a good understanding and evidence-base to take action, it’s important.

BRIDGET: Your role at the moment and a lot of the work you’re doing is to understand better the way the whole system is working and what effects —

ANNA: the things we are able to influence have on it. If you think about the ecosystem-based management framework, you’re trying to achieve an outcome, and that outcome is set by people through planning processes. It’s trying to understand how we can get to the outcome – what’s the mix of ways that would be most efficient, have the most bang for buck, and have the least unintended consequences. 

BRIDGET: When I come back to the question of who speaks for the fish, it seems a little murky – who takes that role from a conservation voice. DOC, as far as I understand it, have a role to play with whitebait, and then there’s the marine reserve down at Blackhead Beach. But is there much call for looking to protect the biodiversity within our oceans – do we have an advocate? I note we’ve just had our competition for Bird of the Year, but there’s no Fish of the Year… 

ANNA: That’s a good question. Regional Council has a responsibility for sustainable management – the consent process (what’s permitted or not permitted under our plans), the effect permitted activities have, whether that influences sustainability, as well as the indirect influences, like sediment. Then you’ve got the fisheries, which is around stock assessments and bycatch, then DOC, which is around the marine mammals, around marine protected areas, legislation. There are a number, and that’s why I think we now have a minister for oceans to try and link that up a little.

BRIDGET: When you’re looking at the quota management system, and fish as stocks, that’s still very much an extraction perspective – the fish that are most commercially valuable get assessed. But there are fish, of course, that will have biodiversity value or special cultural, or even just intrinsic value that seem to be missing in the scheme of things. And even a lot of our commercial fish in the HB inshore don’t have those stock assessments or haven’t been studied for a long time.

ANNA: Scale of fisheries tends to cover most of the east coast of the North Island versus Hawke Bay as such, and I know that’s something recreational fishers have been trying to get a better handle on through things like boat-ramp surveys and membership surveys.

BRIDGET: So, the ‘eye out for the fish’ is happening through the fishers rather than through some conservation group, per se. There’s so much biodiversity within the ocean and so much at risk there, so much we don’t even know about. I find it philosophically interesting where we place our emphasis. 

ANNA: “Man should not be as arrogant as to think they can influence the vast oceans” – but we can, and we do, and we continue to grow that influence as technology advances, so we’ve got to take with that the responsibility as well.

BRIDGET: In terms of the marine environment concerns, I spoke with local fishers the other day, and one of their biggest concerns of course is sediment, but the other is the chemicals coming through the stormwater, wastewater. There is the monitoring that happens within the estuary of known contaminants, but there are emerging contaminants as Our Marine Environment (2019) report points out, like galaxalides – those synthetic fragrances found in common household products, which are now being found to weaken shellfish formation in the Ahuriri Estuary. We’ve just had the big floods, we’ve had yet again raw sewage washing out, we’ve got stormwater washing out… are you concerned?

ANNA: Yes, it is a big concern. Part of the problem is we don’t have a tendency to know about these new contaminants (or so-called “contaminants of emerging concern”) and their effects, until bigger problems start to occur. And this has been consistent throughout our history. For example, TBT, which was a common anti-fouling paint – all of a sudden, the snails in the Waitemata Harbour started becoming intersex, so they banned the TBT. DDT, same thing. There are a whole range of chemical contaminants where we start to solve one problem and then have an unintended consequence of another. We need to ensure that the evidential basis is there in the beginning to try and circumvent that. Part of the problem is that technology increases at such a pace, that the studies behind the effects, the ability to monitor over a period of time isn’t necessarily there. It takes awhile to see issues. 

BRIDGET: So when you have an ecosystem-based model that can take into account all the different influences and what happens, does that mean you can be more alert and quickly responsive to emerging concerns?

ANNA: You need the information, and that’s not always available. If you read the label on the back of your shampoo, for example, it’s going to have 7-8 different components in there – how they act on a particular species, how they interact, how they interact with other things that are coming in, and how that interacts, there are so many permutations there. That’s part of the problem – you need that evidence-base to say that’s an issue, along with when it’s combined – it’s tricky.

In the systems-map we’ve drawn up, you can see how complex it is. That’s only two stressors: freshwater sediments coming into the system and disturbance of the benthic bottom, predominantly through trawling.

BRIDGET: Speaking with the fishers the other day, they seemed quite positive actually, that here in Hawke’s Bay we’ve got the fishers working together, commercial with recreational and customary. There’s talk of initiating a voluntary drop in take of hāpuka because they recognise there’s stress there, for example. Overall, they seem to feel that the fishery is in a better place now than it was a few years ago.

ANNA: That’s what’s lovely, in Hawke’s Bay people know each other. They see each other at the squash club, they see each other at the park or at the pub, it’s much easier to be able to have that conversation and share your point of view. They’ve just put a voluntary commercial closure on the Springsbox again. Wouldn’t it be great if we could manage the fishery at that local level – because it does make a difference. 

BRIDGET: So in terms of an ecosystem-based, local management approach, that would be a really good fit for Hawke’s Bay, and is something we’re already in a sense doing?

ANNA: It’s on a voluntary basis, though, but it is those relationships that really matter. The relationship-building and the ability, because we’re small and we’re fairly well linked in, to have those conversations, means when you’re talking about speed of action, you’ve got groups responsible for their domains, who can make that decision and make it work.

BRIDGET: From a local perspective, it can all sound quite rosy, but then you have all these really dire ocean reports, the global perspective that the fish are being absolutely decimated – how do I reconcile that? But it does seem on the inshore here at least, where we don’t have the big fishing boats that are trawling huge catches, things are looking kind of ok.

ANNA: Our local fishers are still wanting further actions though, but those actions sit with MPI (who are part of our group) and have to go through a legislative process, which does take time. Whereas if you could get people together and agree on a need for action…

BRIDGET: Hence the more evidence-based your case is, the more you can bring people along to come up with solutions, without submitting to a convoluted legal process.

ANNA: When I first started working in the Ahuriri catchment and bringing up that the estuary was having a struggle, there was a lot of, ‘ahh, probably not, nah, it’s fine’, and now people are really aware of it. The good news is the message is getting out and you’ve got people who are changing their actions. The rural sector in Ahuriri have done huge amounts, in fencing, riparian planting, for example. The city council have done a great job in looking at the waterways, and starting to address issues there. The industries have done well in trying to clean up sites, etc, so it’s, again, another collective effort that’s quite a positive.

BRIDGET: And you’re seeing the results of that?

ANNA: Well, we won’t for a while. It takes a long time until you see issues in the first place, and it’s always going to take a long time before we start to see some of the solutions take effect.

BRIDGET: One of the local recreational fishers I was speaking with, said he used to find in the gurnard’s stomachs these little orange crabs with bright turquoise spots on them they’d feast on, and then for a long time he didn’t see them, and now he’s seeing them back. He doesn’t know why but it seems like a good thing.

ANNA: Wow, that’s awesome. I love hearing news like that.

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