South Taranaki's Project Reef Life is citizen science in action

by Luke Jackson / 05 December, 2017

Hawera High and Patea Area School students involved with South Taranaki’s Project Reef Life on a visit to NIWA.

What Lies Beneath

Karen Pratt was working as an accountant in South Taranaki when she got chatting to a local diver and was “stunned” by her ignorance of the diversity of life on her coast.

Curious to find out more, she teamed up with keen diver Bruce Boyd and in 2015, with the support of the South Taranaki Underwater Club, successfully applied for funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The goal of the ministry’s Curious Minds initiative is to engage the whole community in a science project, and Project Reef Life has done exactly that. When conditions are right, a team of volunteer divers – including a marine scientist – conduct surveys of a reef 11km off the coast of Patea. There, an underwater camera is positioned for weeks at a time, 23m below the surface, taking short video bursts of the reef’s rich marine life day and night.

The camera is retrieved regularly and the footage is then downloaded and analysed by students from Hawera High and Patea Area School, before being entered into a national database, NatureWatch NZ. The students also conduct fishing surveys at the reef, graphing and analysing the data, including seasonal and yearly variations. Regular reports are shared on Facebook, YouTube and on the group’s website

Clown Nudibranch captured by an underwater camera monitoring marine life at the reef.

For Pratt and the team, it was important to have an inter-generational group working on the project to raise awareness of the vulnerability of the reef, which is thought to be at least 60,000 years old. “Education, of all ages, in marine ecosystems is essential so the public can engage in meaningful discussions,” she says. “For there to be the desire to protect the ocean, you need the knowledge of what species and ecosystems there are.” 

Discoveries made so far include identifying 26 species of sponge at the reef, four of which may be new to science. A humpback whale call has also been recorded underwater on a hydrophone.

In June, the Ministry for the Environment presented Project Reef Life with a Green Ribbon Award, which acknowledges those “protecting our coasts and oceans”. Yet the future of marine life at the reef is now under threat with a recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to approve an application to dredge iron sand from the South Taranaki Bight.

Environmentalists, who are among those planning to appeal the decision, have raised concerns that drifting sediment may block out life-giving light to the reef, which is only 14km away. “The worst-case scenarios are alarming,” says Pratt.

She believes the value of initiatives such as Project Reef Life is that they can help safeguard our precious resources by engaging the next generation, as well as the present one. “We can go to a local beach, stare at the sea and know we have done something to keep our marine environment intact and healthy.”

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.



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