We have destroyed 90% of our wetlands and the race is on to preserve them while we still can, urge the authors of the new Massey University Press book Life in the Shallows. And that preservation is critical to our climate change response: Aotearoa New Zealand’s wetlands sequester more carbon than our forests and can mitigate some of the worst effects of extreme weather events. For all that, they remain ‘ecological underdogs.’
This richly illustrated book brings them, and the talented people who study them, out of the shadows and into the limelight. It features the work and experiences of 17 leading wetland scientists, the people who literally slog their way into the shallows to unravel their secrets. New Zealand is adept at idolising its talented athletes, but many of its academic heroes get scant attention. Life in the Shallows is a corrective, showcasing the crucial work of our wetland scientists and their innovative solutions to problems caused by climate change, pollution, pests and people.
Karen Denyer: I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog and for me wetlands are our ecological underdogs, our most abused and misunderstood ecosystem. Western culture still ‘body shames’ wetlands, using wetland terms like swamp and bog in a negative way, and allows commercial catch of threatened fish species. Imagine the uproar if kiwi were able to be legally caught, killed and turned into fritters or dog food! We’ve saved a third of our native forests and legally protected 80 per cent of them but destroyed 90 per cent of our wetlands and only protected half of the tiny amount left. So yeah, to me they are an ecosystem that just needs a bit more love and attention.
Monica Peters: They’re intriguing places — it’s not just the glimpses of open water, but the damp swathes that are home to plants that couldn’t survive without ‘wet feet’ either seasonally or year-round. As a plant geek that’s my first focus, but I’ve also begun to appreciate our unique fauna that need wetlands for their survival — the birds, fish and insects.
What has been your most exciting wetland moment?
KD: Spotting a pūweto (spotless crake) for the first time. These small shy birds are actually quite widespread but are so secretive and cryptic they are rarely seen. I worked in wetlands for about 15 years before I finally saw one. y
MP: Visiting Kopuatai Peat Dome in the middle of Hauraki Plains and the surreal experience of standing on a ladder among the mighty tufts of Sporadanthus ferrugineus (giant cane rush) and feeling as if the wetland covered the whole landscape. It was ferociously hot (40°C!) which really surprised me, and the plants were, quite simply, otherworldly.
This book is a celebration of scientists. Why did you decide on this approach?
KD: New Zealand is great at idolising our talented athletes, but many of our academic heroes — who also put Aotearoa on the map — get very little attention at home. We thought, let’s write a book not just about wetlands, but about wetland scientists, the people who literally slog their way into the shallows to unravel their secrets. We write about some of their hairy field moments (exploding lentil stew), their lateral thinking (building fish hotels), and the social obstacles they overcame (the schoolteacher who dissuaded them from STEM subjects, or the father who said ‘you’ll never get a bloody job bloody bird watching’).
What do you hope people will get from reading this book?
KD: We hope people enjoy the stories about what wetland scientists do and along the way learn some fascinating things about our wetlands. We also hope they will visit the wetlands profiled in the book to experience these magical places. Ultimately, we want more people to understand and appreciate wetlands, and hopefully also inspire a new generation of wetland scientists.
MP: When Karen asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her on this project I replied ‘Yes!’ I knew that we could create an engaging book that would provide readers with a different way of looking at and understanding wetlands.
Did you learn anything surprising during the research for this book?
KD: I had no idea I would fall in love with pond scum! As a lifeform we simply wouldn’t exist if not for these slimy colourful mats of muck. They transformed our planet into a habitable place for oxygen breathers.
MP: Many, many things from each scientist! All of those featured have greatly expanded our knowledge of wetlands: how they work and how complex they are, what lives in them, how important they are, how best to restore and manage them . . . but also how beautiful they can be.
Do you have a favourite wetland?
KD: That’s a toughie; they are all so different. Geothermal wetlands are incredible, and I love the tiny detail of minute orchids, sundews and mosses in peat bogs, but one place that I come back to is Kaitoke on Aotea Great Barrier Island. Because it’s right beside the airport you fly low over it, and I usually have my nose pressed against the window picking out the various plant species.
MP: Tahuna Torea in Auckland. It’s a spit of sand that arcs into the Tāmaki Estuary with wetland areas restored over the decades. It’s just down the road from where I grew up. I went there a lot, loving the solitude and how the tides grew and diminished the shoreline, and filled and emptied the shallow pools within the wetland.
What is the role of the National Wetland Trust?
KD: In a nutshell it is to get people into wetlands — in both senses of the word. By encouraging and promoting public access into wetlands, as well as educating, we knew more people would come to appreciate wetlands — for their oddball species, their simple beauty and serenity, and the myriad things they do for us.
MP: One important role of the NWT is to embed wetlands into the consciousness of the wider public — to protect, restore and advocate for something, you have to know what it is and why it’s important.
Wetlands seem to be a popular focus for community groups, why do you think this is so?
KD: Since the 1990s local community groups have really started to come together to look after our natural areas. I credit regional councils for much of this. They imported the ‘landcare’ concept from Australia, supporting local people to adopt and look after streams, dunes and, more recently, wetlands. Not everyone lives near a river or beach, but most communities have a small gully or wetland nearby they can help look after. It’s been a great way to bring people together to make their little bit of the world a better place.
MP: I think there’s been a growing appreciation for wetlands and how badly they have been treated. In the past, Tahuna Torea was firstly going to become a council rubbish dump . . . and then a marina! Now it’s a real asset to the community thanks to a dedicated group of locals (as well as the local council).
Parts of the book talk about mātauranga Māori. What does this traditional knowledge bring to the study and restoration of wetlands?
KD: Western scientists have had barely 200 years to learn about New Zealand wetlands, and most of them have been limited to researching a fraction of the wetlands that once existed, many now degraded and with half their species gone. It is like doing a jigsaw with no box cover and only 10% of the pieces.
Māori lived in and beside wetlands for over 800 years and had the full picture. They have so much intimate knowledge and experience of wetlands: how they work, how they changed seasonally, and how they once were. They observed and interacted with species that are now extinct. It has become clear to most scientists — Māori and non-Māori — that to fully understand a natural area it makes sense to first talk to local iwi and find out what they know from oral history and their own observations. Blending traditional knowledge with Western science dramatically increases our understanding. For instance, learning where and when fish species that are now rare were once harvested can help us locate and protect spawning sites or migration pathways.
MP: Mātauranga Māori brings a dimension that has been missing for a long time, with predominantly Pākeha scientists and land managers leading wetland initiatives. Restoring our degraded landscapes isn’t just about an ecological fix, it’s situating restoration actions into a wider socio-cultural context.
What is your next project?
KD: My job is wonderfully varied, and I love a new challenge. Right now, I am working with a super talented group of people to develop an Eco-Index. It’s a way of measuring and reporting how well we are doing as a nation in terms of protecting our biodiversity and how much we need to spend to reach a set of 2121 biodiversity targets that have been developed. We are working with industry partners from agriculture, horticulture and other sectors, so they can examine what’s required within their own industry.
MP: I’ve loved talking to people: getting to know what drives them to dedicate their lives to learning and understanding a particular species or ecosystem, what they’ve learned and the curious journeys their research has led them on. Another book perhaps, or a creative project incorporating visual storytelling.