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SDG 14 - Life Below Water

14 November 2023

Learn how UC is committed to contributing to SDG 14 - Life Below Water, to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.


When loving the sea becomes destructive

UC Distinguished Professor David Schiel presented a free public talk on the challenges and solutions for sustainable seas. The talk was part of the inaugural Tītohu Tūroa Sustainability Showcase held in October at UC. Professor Schiel is an accomplished researcher and science communicator who works with government and regional councils to ensure policy planning is based on the latest science. “We have to start doing better. If we think about sustainability collectively as a society, we have to understand where the problems lie, what parts can be managed and whether we actually want to leave something for our kids and grandkids,” says Professor Schiel.

Doing justice to place-based realities in marine research

Interdisciplinary research teams across Aotearoa are working together to uncover opportunities for oceans law and policy to better support relationships between people and the ocean, in a way that upholds Te Tiriti o Waitangi and respect for Māori rangatiratanga, rights and interests. UC academics Adrienne Paul and Elizabeth Macpherson jointly presented a seminar entitled “Ocean, Law and Policy” on their work as part of the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge project on Law and Policy for Ecosystem-based Marine Management. The seminar was part of the UC Towards Tino Rangatiratanga in the Law Ngāi Tahu Centre | Kā Waimaero and Faculty of Law | Kaupeka Ture Treaty Partnership Speaker Series. The presenters highlighted the challenge of their research kaupapa, and the collaborative, interdisciplinary approach they are taking to do justice to the place-based realities of ocean people and places.

Biologist hooks award for study of native fish

Dr Sarah Flanagan, from our School of Biological Sciences, won the 2022 UC Council Early and Emerging Career Researcher Award for her research focusing on genetic variation in the pipefish, a native New Zealand marine fish related to the seahorse. A primary focus of Dr Flanagan’s research is to understand and explain why variations amongst species exist and what that means in response to predation and environmental changes. “The survival of this species has both an environmental and a commercial impact. It helps direct conservation management and helps us respond to climate change and human development along coastlines,” says Dr Flanagan.  

Freshwater ecosystems under threat

UC Professor Angus McIntosh, a specialist in freshwater ecology, is heading research into how climate warming is affecting our freshwater ecosystems and how to best deal with those influences in the future. “A major climate-drive threat to freshwater life in New Zealand is increased frequency and magnitude of drought. We know that river communities collapse when rivers dry completely, but we’re trying to find the early warning signs indicating when communities start that process so we can offer better advice in water allocation decisions,” says Professor McIntosh.

Water rights research award

Associate Professor Elizabeth Macpherson was presented with the 2021 Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Research Excellence Award for Humanities, for her work exploring opportunities for Indigenous peoples’ water rights in laws and policies around the world. Associate Professor Macpherson has been working on issues of Indigenous and environmental justice for the past 18 years. She uses a ‘law in context’ method to understand the operation of law on the ground and hopes to collect evidence that will encourage governments to implement legislative and policy changes to address environmental issues. Associate Professor Macpherson said she was honoured to be recognised with the award: “I research environmental law and policy because I hope there can be some improvement in how we protect ecosystems and their biodiversity, for the benefit of future generations – we are seeing rapid deterioration in ecosystem health in Aotearoa New Zealand, and this requires urgent action.”

World’s first Weddell Seal count

An international research team led by UC Antarctic scientist, Dr Michelle LaRue, completed the world’s first global population estimate of Weddell seals in Antarctica, showing that there are significantly fewer seals than previously thought. Documenting the seals’ population trends over time will help scientists better understand the effects of climate change and commercial fishing. It is the first direct population estimate ever conducted for the global distribution of any wide-ranging wild animal species on Earth. In addition to this first-ever count, the researchers gained new insights into the habitat of Weddell seals.

The seals prefer to be near the continental shore but also near deep water – possibly because of the location of predators and the fish they eat. Perhaps most interestingly, the seals appear to prefer to be near Emperor penguins, but only if there aren’t too many of them.

Education on Sustainable Coasts

With more than half of the world’s population living in costal zones, many nations are dependent on the ocean to sustain life. Aotearoa New Zealand as an island nation has a unique history and cultural narrative with its coastal settlements and marine resources and is a living laboratory for learning how to live sustainably. The Sustainable Coasts major, offered by the School of Earth and Environment, students can learn about how to manage our coastal and marine resources. Courses covered include marine and ecology; field ecology; marine ecosystems; coastal studies; coasts and rivers: from natural processes to urban environments; environmental process: principles and applications; and environmental hazards and disasters.

Making law to protect the future of our ocean

A future-focused research project co-led by UC Law researcher Associate Professor Elizabeth Macpherson is considering what legal and policy options might exist to protect our oceans for generations to come. Associate Professor Macpherson’s co-led project will provide options for legal and policy reform to enable ecosystembased management in the marine environment. The interdisciplinary project also brings together researchers from around New Zealand, and includes UC’s Law researcher Adrienne Paul. Associate Professor Macpherson says the findings could lead to changes that affect every New Zealander. “This project is intended to support transformational change. The health of our oceans is deteriorating at a rapid rate. There is a real risk that if we don’t change something, New Zealanders won’t be able to use these marine environments in the way that we do today,” says Associate Professor Macpherson.

Engineering a more sustainable future for commercial fishing

Tighter rules around fishing practices to discourage the catching of smaller fish have been signalled by the New Zealand Government as part of moves to better protect the natural marine environment and more closely monitor and regulate commercial fishing activity. Unintended bycatch of undersize fish and unwanted species can have a major impact on the sustainability of fish stocks.

As part of a government-led project aimed at developing new generation sustainable trawl gear, UC student Stefano Barfucci explored innovative ways to allow undersized juvenile fish to escape directly from the trawl net. “I explored a number of different designs as part of this research, using 3D printing and laser cutting equipment at UC. I was also able to test some of the concepts within a flume tank at UC to simulate ocean conditions,” says Stefano. While there is one precision fish harvesting system available, it can only be used on large purpose-built vessels; Stefano developed his system for use on any commercial fishing boat. Stefano says, “It is a cost effective, lightweight and robust solution that is easy to use.”

Research to take guesswork out of whitebait fishing

New research into whitebait fishing will address whether whitebait are in decline and assess the impact of commercial and recreational whitebaiting on the long-term sustainability of the species. The multi-disciplinary project, led by UC’s Dr Mike Hickford, will be the first to integrate ecological and fishery data to understand whitebait population dynamics. The new research uses innovative experiments in rivers closed to whitebaiting to isolate fishery and habitat effects on populations, analyses previously unavailable data to reconstruct catch statistics, and develops new methods to assess catch and effort and establish a baseline to determine future changes in the fishery.

The research team includes UC’s Distinguished Professor David Schiel, and Professor Angus McIntosh; Professor George Perry from University of Auckland; Dr Shane Orchard from Waterlink Consulting; and Dr Eimear Egan from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

Law of the Sea

UC's Law of the Sea course introduces students to the law of the sea as codified by the 1982 United Nations Convention. Students examine various maritime zones and focus on issues such as sustainable fishing, marine environmental protection and maritime security. Contemporary challenges are explored, including climate change, ocean acidification and managing genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction, a topic subject to on-going negotiations in the UN. The approach Aotearoa takes to managing the marine environment is provided, including Māori perspectives of ocean resources.

Education for Goal 14

The oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface. UC offers a range of course options to equip the next generation in marine and coastal ecosystems for healthy oceans. Students gain a fundamental grounding in ecology, and later study aspects of biology that are useful in applied conservation, such as how ecologists can help to preserve biodiversity. Advanced studies of marine ecology considers how marine species interact with each other and the environment, and explores current issues and processes affecting marine ecosystems within Aotearoa and worldwide.

Environmental Science

Natural Resources Engineering

Water Resource Management

Water and Environmental Systems Engineering

Marine Ecology Research

The Marine Ecology Research Group is affiliated with the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). Students focus on field-based, marine ecological research in the nearshore environment. Research projects include larval fish ecology, the ecology of coastal fishes, the effects of wave exposure on settlement and recruitment of habitatforming species, the effects of humans on intertidal platforms, and life history studies on a wide range of invertebrates, algae and seagrass.

Māori and Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge incorporating the Māori principle of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) in an environmental context is very relevant in Aotearoa. We offer science students a course on basic understanding of Māori and indigenous peoples’ knowledge in such fields as astronomy, physics, conservation biology, aquaculture, resource management and health sciences. The course is about understanding Māori knowledge, how it’s used, where it comes from, and how it can be applied in a modern context in a range of scientific fields.

Towards a Vision for Fisheries

From UC’s School of Mathematics & Statistics, Professor Michael Plank’s mathematical modelling work has had significant impact in industry and government in Aotearoa. Professor Plank is a member of the NZ Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor expert panel. The expert panel considered the future of commercial fishing in Aotearoa, and their report (released February 2021) made recommendations on how to move towards a data-driven approach to fishing for generations to come. Professor Plank’s research on balanced fishing is cited in reports by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and discussed in a forum at the European Union Parliament.

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