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Community Based Monitoring of Local Marine Ecosystems

As coastal communities we care deeply about the health of our beautiful coast. But how many of us really know what’s going on beneath the surface of our favourite beaches, bays and harbours? Our coasts are the ultimate ocean playground: swimming, surfing, sailing, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, waka ama, all on our doorstep. Our reefs, estuaries, mangroves and sea-grass beds provide us with a huge variety of kai moana. But they can only continue to do this if we treat them with respect and take responsibility for their wellbeing.

The first step in caring for our coastal waters is to monitor and understand the actual state of these various marine ecosystems. Then we can make informed decisions about where, when and how much we can responsibly take, ensuring we pass on a healthy coast to future generations.

The Hauora Moana (Healthy Ocean) Community Monitoring Initiative’s aim is to train local community members in a qualitative monitoring method that has been specifically developed for communities to use. This method can provide “real-time” feedback about the health and wellbeing of specific sites that are important to us, which can then inform responsive and appropriate management actions. The Hauora Moana Initiative is based on a qualitative reef survey methodology developed in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. The methodology is the outcome of post-graduate research that investigated the level of correlation between traditional ecological knowledge and modern scientific ecological understanding. We want to facilitate and empower communities to take the lead in monitoring, understanding and caring for their local marine ecosystems.

The Hauora Moana programme is designed to provide communities with a framework for monitoring their marine resources and in particular, monitoring changes to the health of local areas over time. The programme incorporates training in the monitoring of key health indicators as well as the use of local traditional ecological knowledge, through a modified qualitative survey method known as Free Choice Profiling. This holistic approach can help communities make management decisions about the use of their marine resources that are consistent with ecosystem based management principles. Of particular value is the concept of the relational wholeness of the ecosystem that identifies and acknowledges the complex web of relationships that contribute to the bio-diversity and resilience of ecosystems at all levels.

There are three parts to the Hauora Moana monitoring programme: the survey, the consensus process and finally, analysis of the results.

Conducting the Survey

Although at first glance reefs all look similar to each other, there are many factors that make each reef slightly different, such as exposure to wind and waves, current patterns, proximity to river mouths, water quality, shoreline and underwater geography, and many other factors. All of these factors influence the reef and determine its natural, or normal state, including what types and how much seaweed and kelp will grow and the populations of fish and invertebrate species that will live there. All of these factors give every reef its own particular qualities, the things that make it different and unique from other reefs.

The most important difference between this and other reef monitoring surveys is that with this approach we are more focused on using our intuitive skills to tune in to the reef’s individual qualities so that we can better understand what is normal and natural for a particular reef and how healthy it is. Rather than counting or measuring, we are trying to get a sense or feeling for the overall wellbeing of the reef. Tuning into the reef’s individual qualities might sound hard, but the more familiar we become with our reefs the easier this becomes. To help us do this we will use a range of health indicators, including overall abundance and diversity, some important fish species, as well as potential impacts, such as nutrient indicator algae cover, kina barrens and sedimentation.

The Consensus Process:

A key part of this monitoring approach is the use of a consensus process. By having several monitors surveying the reef, then comparing their results, there is less chance of individual bias affecting the accuracy of the survey. Ideally there should be a minimum of four monitors per survey. Reaching consensus simply means everybody agreeing about the current state of the reef. To reach consensus it is critical that all the monitors who conducted the survey have a chance to explain the reasons for where they marked each health indicator on their slate. There are no right or wrong answers; each monitor’s results provide important insights into the current state of health of the survey area.

Analysis

Analysis of the survey results is a simple process of transcribing the consensus outcomes onto a graph that places the result for each indicator on a health index scale. This scale relates directly to management responses, pre-determined by the community. The final results can then be reported back to the community.