Ngā Iwi o Tauranga Moana (a collective group for Māori tribes in Tauranga) had reason to be concerned when the Rena grounded on the Astrolabe Reef on 5 October 2011. They were concerned, as everyone was, about the effects of the oil spill and debris on the environment, both for the short and long term. Their particular concern, though, was the health of the kaimoana. It is of great importance to iwi that they are able to provide fresh kaimoana for important meetings and ceremonies, especially bereavement occasions. It is implicit to maintaining the mana of the hapū and iwi.

A Māori food source

The ocean has long been a food basket to tangata whenua. Many Māori rely on kaimoana as part of their food source. This is certainly the case for the isolated Mōtītī Islanders who have been badly affected by the Rena grounding. Toxins appearing in the marine life would impact on the way Māori gather kaimoana, eat and live. Tauranga Moana iwi were concerned about the risk to the health of local Māori.

Heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in heavy fuel oil. They are toxic to marine life and can enter the food web, causing bioaccumulation in shellfish and fish.

Iwi get involved in clean-up

Māori leaders say it is Māori communities that have to deal with many of the worst impacts. The regular discharges of oil onto Matakana, Maketū and Mōtītī were concerning for Māori. These areas have predominantly Māori communities that are dependent on food they harvest from the sea. They believe they will be cleaning and monitoring for a long time until they are satisfied they have restored their marine environment to a state their ancestors enjoyed.

An early priority after the Rena grounding was to get as many iwi involved in the oil clean-up as possible. A request was made to Maritime New Zealand to train iwi members to be assessors and leaders in the clean-up response. The Tauranga Moana Iwi Response Unit was set up for iwi of Tauranga to help protect ancestral waters, traditional food resources, culture and people from the impact of the disaster. The team was responsible for communication amongst iwi networks and for co-ordinating their own clean-up response. Hui were held on marae for updates and to compare notes, discuss concerns and make long-term plans for the clean-up.

Iwi concerns about kaimoana

Charlie Tāwhiao from the iwi umbrella group Te Moana ā Toi said iwi have to first act on behalf of their members by maintaining a rāhui (restriction of access) on kaimoana, even when public health authorities declared shellfish were safe. He believed health authorities underestimated the amount of kaimoana eaten by iwi. Iwi were also aware that small amounts of oil were drifting into the sea from the ship in the months that followed the grounding. Many iwi felt that the oil clean-up may not lessen the risk to their health.

Research team monitoring kaimoana

A research team known as Te Mauri Moana was formed to monitor and explore kaimoana recovery, particularly in the long term. The team is led by Professor Chris Battershill, the University of Waikato’s Chair of Bay of Plenty Coastal Science, and involves the University of Waikato, Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi and the University of Canterbury working collaboratively to utilise the expertise of researchers nationwide to achieve a comprehensive environmental monitoring programme. Māori perspectives were integrated into the research, with leadership and input from local iwi and Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi.

The team is looking at the long-term chronic impacts of the oil spill on kaimoana. Initial sampling showed shellfish and finfish were contaminated with PAHs. A ban was put in place for shellfish and finfish until sampling showed they were free of contaminants. Shellfish and finfish rid themselves of these contaminants over time.

Some of the research being conducted is to determine recovery time for kaimoana from stress and, in particular, from the Rena oil slick. Scientists will monitor how long affected samples take to recover when moved to clean water.

The team acknowledge that it is important to involve tangata whenua because they have knowledge of the area and scientists learn from them. They work closely with iwi to capture traditional environmental knowledge (mātauranga Māori) and ensure cultural values are respected.

The team views the research as extremely valuable. Never before has a New Zealand coastline been through this level of pollution, so discoveries will be ground-breaking in understanding the resilience of New Zealand environments. Local communities will be regularly informed of results from these studies.

Nature of science

Scientists nowadays are working more closely with local community groups as they recognise the value of their local knowledge. Strong relationships were forged with local iwi concerning the Rena disaster. A close connection helps scientists to focus their research to meet the needs of the people.

    Published 11 January 2012