Matiu/Somes Island – A Treasure In Wellington Harbor

Matiu/Somes Island – A Treasure In Wellington Harbor

In the case of Matiu-Somes Island, community comes first. It is in this spirit that generations of dedicated people working together to protect an island’s rich inter-cultural and natural heritage are creating an enduring model for the future of environmental education and conservation in New Zealand. An average citizen of Wellington may associate the 24.8-hectare, lop-sided island with a sense of mystery and pride as he/she gazes out on it and its neighboring islet, Mokopuna, or Leper Island, across the shimmering harbor.  They are probably unaware that it is one of only 45 or so islands larger than 10 hectares in New Zealand’s coastal waters that are completely pest-free (Z).  Moreover, its 8km proximity to the capital city ensures that it will remain unique among these as a readily accessible, educational asset to the community at large (Z).

Ironically, after millions of years of having been a virgin ecosystem, the island was for over a hundred years the site of an animal quarantine facility, which thankfully kept the mainland disease-free.  Since it was liberated of rats through an eradication process in 1989, conservation biologists and concerned citizens have aimed to restore Matiu-Somes to something nearer its ancient splendor.  This is chiefly accomplished by temporarily quarantining visitors in a secure Whare Kiore, or “rat house,” when they first disembark from the ferry or from private boats (AA), in order to check for accidentally introduced flora and fauna. Rats had long been on the legendary island, which is recognized in Maori oral history as one of the sacred places discovered and named, perhaps for his daughter (BB) by the 14th century AD East Polynesian explorer Kupe.  Matiu-Somes is also significant to many Westerners who’s relations were quarantined around the turn of the century, or held as captive interns during the Great Wars, and whom were perhaps even buried on the hill (AA).  This enduring history is part of a cultural legacy worth preserving for all New Zealanders.

Furthermore, the recent political history of Matiu-Somes make it a milestone of social progress in contemporary New Zealand, from the reemergence and combination of its Maori name, Matiu, with it’s assumed western name, Somes, to its remarkable return to iwi ownership in 2009 (AA).  Somes, a financier of the New Zealand Company, perhaps never set foot on the island (A), and it was a significant redress when the New Zealand Geographic Board restored Matiu to the official name in 1997.  In more ways than one, visiting Matiu-Somes is like entering a time machine, not only into the ancient past but also forward into the expectant future.

The key to this ever-evolving compromise began with a fundamental vision that was discussed in a June 1995 workshop, and that remained separate from Treaty claims on the ownership of the island that were then just forethought.  The aim shared by various stakeholders including the statutory government management agency, along with several iwi, and the most dedicated interest groups, was to work cooperatively for the effective development of Matiu-Somes into a community based conservation project. In other words, the cultural and spiritual sites would be noted and maintained, and the natural habitat would be restored to resemble other, less impacted areas in the same “ecological district.”  Thus, the eventual goal would be to successfully manage the huge potential for visitation and appreciation by everyone who agrees to respect the rules (Z).

Due to Matiu-Somes’ long-standing categorization by the Department of Conservation as a scientific and historical reserve, and painstaking efforts to keep it predator free, this continues to be a realistic objective, and a number of rare species of birds, reptiles, invertebrates and plants are now thriving in a semi-natural environment accessible to the public rain or shine. Two of the primary interest groups involved in the Atawhai Ruamano, or community conservation strategy, helping the Department of Conservation and the tangata whenua, or traditional owners, to monitor and study the ecology of the island, are the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, and the community at University of Victoria, Wellington (Z).  Studies done by these groups have confirmed the presence of rare native species on Matiu-Somes, such as Grey Geckos, three species of Skinks, Spotted Shags, Blue Reef Herons, Little Blue Penguins, and many more (X).  Some species are harder to manage than others, for example Black Backed Gulls that are numerous enough to out-compete other sea birds for nesting areas, and create a potential hazard for airplanes leaving the Wellington Airport (Z).

Community and academic groups have also aided in the successful translocation of historically resident species, such as the Wellington Tree Weta (Hemideina crassidens), a 45mm, grasshopper-like, insect that lives inside tree cavities (E).  Developers petitioned the Hutt City Council when they heard that Weta Condos were being erected on the island in 2000, monopolizing the prime coastal real estate.  Each Weta flat, or gallery, holds around 13 Wetas, and the males of course compete for the ones that host the most society females. One glance at these large jawed, heavily armored-herbivores, which used to repulse even the first settlers (BB), will transport you to a land before time, where pre-historic reptiles might have snacked on them.  Indeed, antediluvian reptiles comprising the last living members of a 225 million year old line (P), commonly known as Tuatara, were among the first species invited back to the island since it became rat free.

One of the last populations of around 400 Tuatara was previously confined to a four-hectare rock in the Cook Straight, and no individuals had been sited near Wellington since the mid 1870’s.  Then, in 1998, with the blessings of their traditional Maori guardians, and the equally important blessing of a suitable habitat laboriously re-planted starting in the 1970’s by the Lower Hutt Branch of the Forest and Bird Society, 20 wild and 30 captive Tuataras were re-introduced to Matiu-Somes (F).  Years of research on the nesting habits of Tuatara were remunerated when subsequent studies following their release witnessed positive trends (D). Perhaps the most significant fact about this noteworthy scientific achievement, however, is the underlying collective that made it possible. Local iwis, or tribes, represented by the Wellington Tenths Trust and Te Atiawa Ki te Tau Ihu– Nelson-Marlborough, along with the far away San Diego Zoo, the Conservation Department, Victoria University, the Nga Manu Wildlife Sanctuary, and heaps of volunteers, were in constant cooperation (L).  Since 1895 when Tuataras first gained legal protection, citizens were denied access to their sites, and a huge “taonga,” or treasure was returned to a deserving public upon their re-introduction (R).

Just as the Tuatara was given back to the citizens of New Zealand, Matiu-Somes was included in the Treaty of Waitangi Cultural Redress for the Port Nicholson Block Settlement in 2008, and in 2009, officially handed back to the local Maori community, including descendants of a tribe that had likely been living on the island as late as 1835 (X)(AA). The current board of advisors, or Kaitiaki, for the new management of the island will soon be setting important precedents for government management on privately owned land.  According to Nicola Nelson, a biology professor at Victoria who has been involved with research on the island since the 1990’s, and one of six of the Kaitiaki board members, which include government and iwi representatives, the original vision for Matiu-Somes continues to thrive under the goodwill of all the parties involved (CC).

The ongoing vision for the island is largely made possible by the hard work of volunteers and resident Department of Conservation Rangers, such as Diane Batchelor, who has contributed to ecological restoration on Matiu-Somes since 1999.  Ms. Batchelor began as a “weedy,” removing invasive vegetation such as Box Thorn, a stubborn plant that can grow into house-size patches.  Other non-native species on Matiu-Somes are allowed refuge due to their historical value, such as large shade trees like the huge Macaracarpa that watches over the nursery.  Maintaining the past, present and future of the island is a constant challenge, and although Ms. Batchelor loves doing the dirty work that comes with living on the island, her background is in education.  Like many in her field, she views Matiu-Somes as a “gem” among islands for its proximity to the capital and thus its potential to inspire the public (DD).

People skills can also come in handy when managing increasing numbers of visitors who have to be sold on the unfamiliar concept of bio-security in a small whare kiore.  Fortunately, the infrastructure of Matiu-Somes, which only claims two toilets, along with crucial management concerns for maintaining tracks and the quality of the individual visitor experience put the limit on guests at 200 per day.  Ms. Batchelor’s biggest concern is not the amount of tourists but the threat of invasive seeds and insects that come with them. The Argentine Ant, for example, is a colonial insect living in nearby ports that can overrun other insects, as well as birds and reptiles.  Ensuring the quality of the bio-security process and undertaking visitor management and fire safety are jobs largely done by a group of weekend volunteers called the Eastbourne Forest Rangers.  Often, volunteers on Matiu-Somes wear suits during the week, and use the island as an opportunity to bask in the wonders of nature on weekends and public holidays (DD). It is my belief that with this sort of continued teamwork along the lines of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, manaakitanga, or respect, whanaungatangaa, or family, and on behalf of the island’s mauri, or life force (BB), it is certain that Matiu-Somes will shortly become more significant then ever to the citizens of Wellington, and New Zealand, as a place for continued appreciation and learning.

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