Conservation in Te Angiangi Marine Reserve & Surrounds, North Island New Zealand

Field Research at Te Angiangi Marine Reserve, New Zealand Once again, we stood by our vans at Victoria University and put on some hit-the-road music, finally with an I-pod instead of the endless “Sugar Sugar” early oldies mix I had to purchase last time.  This time we headed up to the central east coast of the stingray shaped North Island, or Te Ika-a-Māui, The Fish of Maui.  My flat-mate and TA, Luke Thomas, AKA Night Hawk, drove our van while Sponge-man, Tuatara-Queen, Prancing-Deer and Foxy Lady headed up the rest of the caravan.  Luke devised the walkie-talkie names based on each professor’s specialty, and Haiko, the cool German Caribou PHD, responded with a hilarious, “prancing deer?! Give me a break!”

Our mission: to learn how to conduct fieldwork, by collecting dubious data using self-designed methods, in an established marine reserve.  The Department of Conservation had been collecting baseline data from 1990-2001, and Victoria had been doing informal studies here since.  To satisfy the needs of the terrestrial conservation students, we would also stop at a handful of protected areas.  Predator-proof fences surrounded all of these, except for Boundary Stream Reserve, which is one of NZ’s famed “Terrestrial Islands,” contained solely by intensive poisoning and trapping.

Stopping briefly on the road at Pukaha Mount Bruce Sanctuary, I saw two specimens of North Island Brown Kiwi, one of the five extant and endangered species of this flightless bird, for the very first time, in an exhibit enclosure lit with dim red lights.  The nocturnal, burrowing, dodo-like, large-chicken sized birds treaded around clumsily, poking long hooked bills into dead logs in search of grubs.  One, named Manukura, was much smaller than the other and all white, but not an albino, and each required its own large enclosure.  Some people even claim to have seen the larger, Brown Kiwi fall over and get stuck in its tree cavity dwelling.

Kiwis, the smallest living ratites, or keel-less birds missing a shoulder bone to anchor their wings to, have existed for millions of years, but it still seems fortunate that New Zealanders have been able to save this ridiculous species from imminent extinction.  I could not help laughing at the charismatic birds busyness.  The size of the egg, 15 to 20 percent of the body mass of a female kiwi and proportionately bigger than any other bird egg, also surprised me.  The hatchery also had glass-viewing windows, and a cracked egg being monitored for the slightest activity with wire sensors reminded me of Jurassic Park, a re-occurring metaphor in NZ.  Mount Bruce reminded me of one of the posh lodges in the Costa Rican rainforest, and I had a cappuccino and a chocolate chip cookie on the rainy deck while observing a Takahe pecking at its feed been and a native Kereru pigeon on the top of a tree.

It was also here where I was introduced to the North Island Kōkako (Callaeas cinerea wilsoni), a forest bird endemic to NZ.  It is a beautiful blue-grey color with lilac blue wattles and a black mask.  In Maori legend, the hero Maui tamed the sun and got so thirsty that he sent the Kōkako to fetch water, giving it long legs to run speedily through the bush.  The Kokako’s vibrant ultramarine wattles represent the life giving water it carried to the demi-god.  Being one of only two endangered species of New Zealand Wattlebird, the other being the Tieke, or Saddleback, we were fortunate to see a wild Kokako hopping in the branches of a native Rimu conifer at Boundary Stream.  This particular captive bird, like all Kōkakos, had made its own dialect of its territorial and mating song.  It had evidently been exposed to visitors for a long while, and had perfected the “sexy whistle”, as well as a knocking throat sound, and every once in a while said “Kōkako.”  Juan the Mexican fell in love with her and none of us wanted to leave, but alas we had an appointment with the manager of the marine reserve.

“Te Angiangi Marine Reserve was established in August 1997 and covers an area of about 446 hectares, extending one nautical mile offshore from mean high water mark.”  It is located near Cape Kidnappers in the Hawke’s Bay region, where summer still presides in these waning days of February.  The gorgeous weather reminded me that my time here was passing by ever so quickly like thistle seeds blown across the beach and out to sea, and I never felt more fortunate than when body-surfing the refreshingly cold, clear blue waters first think in the morning.

The reserve is widely used for education and conservation, including protecting the habitat of the rare New Zealand Dotterel, a shorebird which nests in the dunes of the neighboring Ouepoto Reserve.  It is, moreover, a paradise for recreational activities like snorkeling and walking the sandy beach, and it was sad for many a local when a storm last march buried the reserve in rocks and dirt in a natural event of epic proportions.  Many referred to it as a “water-bomb”.  A previous earthquake had loosened the sides of the surrounding hills, already stripped of any adhesive vegetation by the abundant sheep which were first introduced to NZ in this region in the late 1800’s, and the hundred year rains brought them down with a vengeance.

The landscape throughout the region was scarred with slips and flooded river basins, and the 100 year old Aramoana wool shed, token historical building of the reserve made of sturdy Heart Kauri wood, was rear-ended by mud and pushed a full meter off it’s pilings. Due to the unavailable height of the entrance, we held our lecture in the billiard room of a private beach home, on loan by a friend of the reserve.

Sitting comfortably on the floor in front of the flat screen TV, Rod Hansen, a stout fisheries officer and rancher type with clear blue eyes and a caring disposition showed us a DOC promotion video for the reserve, which boasted the beauty and biodiversity of the area, pre rain-bomb.  Rod then divulged about the reality of the current physical and fiscal situation, as well as the increasing difficulties in enforcing the statutory regulations, namely the no-take law.

Rod made clear that it is primarily regional interest groups forming the Aramoana Environmental and Education Charitable Trust, established in 2009, that take on the maintenance of the reserve, and not government grants.  An approximate $20,000 for repairs, which required lifting the entire wool-shed 6ft off the ground with hydraulic jacks, and tens of thousand of dollars more in road clearing were recently spent.  A charitable trust, Rod explained, is much like a non-profit business that uses its tax-exempt privileges to raise money for projects, such as creating campgrounds and other facilities for educational groups and bulldozing away the landslides after the storm.

Apparently, the huge degree of permanent damage created tremendous local pressure to initiate a cleanup, as the reserve is also an important 4-wheel drive access point to the rest of the beach.  Our Professor, Dr. Bell, had his qualms with this large-scale interference, which counters a natural process that is quintessential to the life and definition of the reserve.  This clearly illustrates how public interest, as opposed to science, is king when in comes to conservation, even on government land.

After the talk we had a chance to explore the beach, and after five hours in the van from Wellington I sauntered gratefully, observing Red-Billed Gulls, Herons, and Variable Oyster-Catchers.  The rounded beach stones and piles of rock that rolled down from the hillside were of a light grey rock, with the feel and consistency of hardened potting clay.  Dodging blue bottle jellies and shallow crevices, I waded out onto the slimy, silted grey tidal platform, which was dotted with Gold Limpets and small patches of the emblematic Eel Grass (Zostera muelleri), the larger beds of which had been destroyed by the slips.  We all felt bad for the group who traditionally monitored the sea grass and now had to find what was left of it.

My group likely had the most fun assignment: to monitor the low-inter and sub-tidal rocky reef shelf for Paua (Pow-A) and Kina (Kin-A), or abalone and sea urchins.  During the study, I concocted several songs about Paua, including a re-worded version of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise/ Post-Grad Paradise”(see bottom)

The black-foot species of Paua is most common in these parts, and it is considered a gourmet delicacy by many and even eaten raw by the hardest locals.  I also have yet to try Kina, whose edible body is extracted from its calcium carbonate shell as a briny, slimy nut, preferred by parrotfish, shorebirds and salty seafood lovers.  In easy-access areas, commercial and independent hunters snatch up these invertebrates eagerly, along with the more sub-tidal Crayfish. The Marine Reserves Act of 1971 states that “ a person shall be deemed to have taken or removed marine life for commercial purposes if he or she is found in possession of an amount exceeding 3 times the amateur individual limit (if any),” though no permits are yet required anywhere in the country.  There are, however, size-limits and quotas, which I would imagine are rarely respected in places where fisheries observers are few and far-between.

According to many marine resource mangers I have spoken to, effective implementation of basic regulations is arguably the biggest challenge to the viability of marine reserves, as research sites and as sources of larval dispersal.  Law enforcement is costly in the field and in court, and often poachers are willing to risk a slap on the wrist against chances to make a tidy profit.  This was certainly the case in the Gulf of California, where one no-take reserve was located 53km from the coast.  San Pedro Martir Reserve required high-speed, gas-guzzling “Interceptor” boats to chase around illegal fishermen, who were usually forewarned by their comrades with satellite phones.  In the case of sea turtle egg-poaching as well, it always seemed to me that targeting the black market itself, as opposed to its many supply posts, would be a much more cost effective strategy.

Rod told a diverting story of how code words were used to catch a Crayfish poacher who regularly used a radio-scanner to evade patrolling officers.  When the “key was in the gate,” the enforcement boats surprised him and caught him red-handed lifting his traps from within the reserve, a minor offence under the Reserves Act of 1977.  But when a high-speed chase ensued, the criminal charge of obstructing an officer was added to his record.  The most severe penalty to date for these combined offences is a sentence of one month in jail.  Rob said it is quite common for offenders to flee from the scene, and four large men who were recently apprehended with a payload of 800 Paua, or $8,000 on Auckland’s black market, also attempted, unsuccessfully, to out-run a police truck on their puttering ATV.  Once scraped off the rocks, the Paua have little chance of survival due to their inability to clot blood, but once confiscated they are always returned to the reserve.

In our commercial species monitoring project, we attempted to get a rough idea of the size and abundance of Paua and Kina by conducting two 10 by 10 meter transects, at peak low tide, inside and outside the Te Angiangi Marine Reserve.  Even prior to reading the initial DOC reports, my hypothesis was that both species would be more abundant, larger on average, and found in higher densities within the marine reserve than in the rock pools just outside of the no-take zone.  Rod Hansen, a DOC manager of the Te Angiangi Marine Reserve’s informal reports of high poaching rates in the past months slightly shook my conviction, but soon my hypothesis was confirmed, at least when it came to Paua.  Kina was actually more abundant, larger, and found in higher densities outside the reserve.

A jump to conclusions, and pro-reserve approach would assert that Crayfish, being a primary predator of Kina, would have benefited from their protected habitat in the reserve, leading to larger populations and thus fewer and smaller Kina in the protected zone.  I cannot, however, give the conservation ideal the benefit of the doubt just because it is the easiest solution. It is especially significant that marine reserve policy gives little import to long-term, uninterrupted ecological development, which is perhaps a marine reserve’s most important function.  Were I to be able to access the University of Victoria’s annual reports on this same study, I could make the most of our limited data, for this is the sort of continuous monitoring that is necessary to draw serious conclusions.

Moreover, if I were to seriously consider the data collected during this project, I would have to factor in observations that we were unable to make, such as currents and hydrodynamics, seasonal and lunar patterns, variability of migration and recruitment events of both predator and prey species, vegetation coverage and available habitat, harvesting activity in local and adjacent areas, and the effects of recent storms and earthquakes.  All of these factors, if taken into consideration, could help elucidate the trends in our data. In a casual, beer-in-hand-lecture on marine reserves at the back-packers lodge in Havelock North, the veteran professor James Bell, reminded us that fishermen nearly always lose out on profits when traditionally fished areas are closed.  The long-term sustainability construal, he explained, does not apply to the dominant commercial model that allows for increased efforts and more efficient technology to balance declining stocks.  In other words, as far as fishermen are concerned sustainability is defined as an acceptable profit margin.

Chris Maser sums up this dogma in his definition of “the economics of extinction” as “profit over all—even if it means the loss of most of the world’s species of plants and animals and the ecological functions they perform. Liquidation pays, even in the purposeful extinction of a species. Conservation costs, and cost is unacceptable to profiteers.”   Ecology is a concept recently introduced to “Western” science, let alone to our socio-economic paradigm where “wholesome reinvestment is (still) seen only as economic waste.”[iii] Legal systems are built on the same creed, and in court it is extremely difficult to quantify the long-term gains of marine reserves.  Nevertheless, glaring benefits are there for anyone to see by dunking their masked head into a tide-pool, first inside and then outside of Te Angiangi Marine Reserve, if only in the sheer abundance of Paua.

In conclusion, the echoed message was that many marine reserves seem to be generally lacking in baseline data, and devoid of a holistic, commonsense approach to policy and management, and thus have a long way to go before they prove themselves to the same extent as their terrestrial fore-bearers. Aside from plunging into tide-pools with waves crashing over us and observing little labrid fishies, and pulling up blue sea stars, giant brittle-stars, sea slugs and Kina, there were many other memorable experiences on this trip.  In Havelock North, for example, we drove to the highest peak, Te Mata, and I had an ice cream and a beer as I gazed out over the expansive countryside, imagining the thrill of launching off the sheer wooden paraglide “slides.”

Just down the street from our lodge, we also visited the Arataki Honey Farm, which hosts a complete exhibit of the honey making process, honey samples of a great variety and honey infused products.  I had a good laugh when one girl asked aloud “what’s good for sun-burn?” And I automatically and enthusiastically replied, “EVERYTHING,” in the midst of unashamedly slathering on a multitude of sample balms and lotions. Among the items I ended up purchasing is a delicious, white, creamy honey derived uniquely from the Pohutukawa, or New Zealand Christmas Tree, an abundant coastal plant with beautiful, tassel-like, scarlet summertime flowers. In order to ensure the purity of the honey, the bees are carted to an island where this is the only available flower, thus demonstrating yet another economic incentive for the protection and isolation of New Zealand’s endemic species, birds, bees and flowers alike.

Taking a tour of the famous point at Cape Kidnappers was yet another climactic moment.  Gannet Overland Safaris is a company that leases out a permit from the long-standing farm owners, who own the spectacular 2,000 hectares along the Cape.  Within the farm lies NZ’s largest mainland sanctuary, full of Tea Trees, native Jasmine and a huge Kanuka forest with prolific kiwis, Wetas and other welcomed natives, like a microscopic land-snail, recently discovered in a passerine-bird diet study.  It is protected with the help of DOC, killing traps primarily for stoats and cats, and a “leaky,” 10.5km predator-proof-fence.  The farm also boasts a fancy lodge with freshly grown vegies, and an elite golf course frequented by celebrities.

Our driver and guide, Joe, was a grey haired British-Kiwi woman, most likely in her early seventies, with whom I had trouble keeping up with mentally and physically.  Two steps behind her when running up a hill to observe a Maori archeological site, she explained that she was training for an upcoming trip to Tibet where she planned to trek well above 14,000ft.  Every time I put my feet up on a box in the tour bus, within the bounds of her evidently-wide periphery, she had a clever way to shoot me down, saying that I had elegant legs and that she felt like shaving them.  Joe had an abundance of information that she shared between jokes on the bus’ PA system, and I cannot even begin to share her lifetime of knowledge about the farm’s landscape, sights, scents and species. I will, however, say that we saw the world’s fourth most rare species of duck, the Pateke, or brown teal, from afar, and that I was not the most excited of the group.

The 800ml of rain in 36hrs had also taken its toll on the farm, and it was slightly nerve-racking being driven by an elder lady on the serpentine road which bordered steep gullies like the telling “bank-manager’s corner.” It was all worth it, however when we reached the spectacular, layer-cake cliffs of Hawkes Bay, and went further still to the famous fishhook point of Maori Legend.  This is the very hook that the young hero Mauri made from his deceased grandmother’s jawbone, and that he smeared with his own blood when denied bait by his older brothers.  To his kin’s bewilderment, he proceeded to catch the world’s largest ray, which became the North Island, now full of gorges and mountains due to the brothers’ frenzied hacking at its flesh.  The English name for the point, “Cape Kidnappers,” came about in the 1800’s when the local Maori tribe abducted Captain Cook’s Tahitian crew, mistaking them for their own.

Visible from the lighthouse spit, on a fantastic saddle formation held up by Gaudi-like arches of grey limestone rising directly from the sapphire sea, the Australasian gannet, or Takapu, one of three species of gannet, which belong to the booby family, gathered in thousands to nest and rest. They have been nesting at Cape Kidnappers since the 1870s, and due to DOC’s protection of the 13-hectare coastal reserve and its three contained colonies, the squabbling sea birds’ numbers have steadily increased to 6,500 pairs, making it the largest and most accessible mainland colony in the world.

It seemed there were more over-fed young than the smaller adults, and the puffed up, spotted and molting juvies gaining on 16 weeks, often stretched their wings to test the gusts of wind in preparation for a 2,800km crossing to Tasmania.  They then return at the mature age of five to breed and nest, and remain in NZ’s bountiful coastal seas until they die of old age at 40, or perish by predation or crash landing.  The Plateau colony was directly at our feet, chained off and filling the cliff top with the rich aroma I came to love when giving tours of Guano covered Isla San Jorge in the Gulf of California.

I found it distinctly unpleasant to have my tea and biscuits in what felt like a constant drizzle of poo and down, and so I took a long stroll up-wind along the sheer edges of the sandy cliffs.  Here I came upon a remarkable abundance of springy hares, creating precarious paths and innumerable burrows. The bunnies erode the land and cause booms of the unwanted stoats, which feed on them before switching their diet to the endemic species.  According to Joe, just five years after colonists introduced the hare they realized their grave mistake.  At Boundary Stream, the reserve we visited next, it was a major breakthrough when widespread hare poisoning was carried out and funded by cooperative farms surrounding the mainland island.

It began to pour as soon as we gathered under the new wooden shelter at Boundary Stream Reserve, situated on the eastern flanks of the Maungaharuru Range, about 60 km northwest of Napier.  A lush forest amidst neatly shaved farmland, the mainland island consists of 702 ha of government land and 100ha of private land.  It extends from lowland forest at 300m above sea level to montage forest at 1000 m above sea level, thus making it impossible to surround with a predator-proof fence.

The island consists primarily of secondary-growth forest, having once been heavily logged like the rest of NZ, but an 800-year-old Matai tree, saved from the mill in the 1930s, bears witness to the spectacular forest that once was.  I was made fun of for “having a moment” with the tree, touching it to feel its energy, as I would do with the much bigger Ceiba trees in Costa Rica.  A huge cluster of epiphytes had recently landed near the trunk, so this is probably a bad idea.  Another scary though is a run-in with Urtica ferox, or Ongaonga, the endemic stinging nettle, of which we saw several in the reserve.  The stinging can last for days and has claimed one recorded life of a hunter who wandered through a dense patch.

Our guide was a very positive, easygoing ranger, and reminded us that the forest, though new, comprised a healthy and rich habitat for diverse native species.  For example, despite budget cuts, a sea-bird nesting project would soon be added to the current Kiwi breeding program, as endangered Shearwaters and Petrels are known to nest on high cliffs within the reserve.

It is confirmed that predator levels have dropped significantly since the restoration of the mainland island began in 1996, with an aerial drop of 1080 poison.  We were shown some of the more effective traps including one used for cats, which was derived from a Canadian Beaver Trap design.  What makes the mainland island concept unique, however, is the fact that restoration is closely and meticulously monitored.  This work is time consuming and costly, and recent political changes will be downgrading this scientific component to a great degree.  The rangers did not seem worried for the habitat, which will continue to be managed to an extent, but the loss of scientific expertize and baseline data certainly suggests that progress in the field of conservation will slow temporarily.