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Source: Department of Conservation

The sheltered waters of the Waitematā Harbour forms one of the arms of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana. At its narrowest point it is crossed by the Auckland Harbour Bridge, one of the busiest junctions in Auckland. Daily, more than 170,000 vehicles travel the bridge that connects Auckland’s North Shore and the CBD. But lately the hustle and bustle of our biggest city has been brought to a relative standstill during Alert Level 4, and some long absent visitors have been making a comeback. Fraser Stobie, an environmental consultant at Envirostrat, was lucky enough to capture the moment when an eagle ray visited.

Silver linings are hard to find while the world deals with the global chaos and resulting economic fallout arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, an undercurrent of positive news stories about cleaner coastal waters, the return of wildlife to urban areas, and reduced atmospheric pollution has improved the mood. My mind is drawn in particular to the pictures that went viral across social media in mid-March that show drastically clearer water in the canals of Venice, allowing residents to see fish for the first time and attracting swans to places where they were previously absent.

Coming from a scientific background I place a high value on collecting data and utilising robust scientific techniques to draw conclusions. However, the tangible anecdotal observations we’re making in our immediate environment during lock down can’t be ignored.

I am fortunate to live along the shores of the Waitematā, with fantastic views across to Auckland CBD and out towards Rangitoto and the Hauraki Gulf. While practicing responsible exercise habits during the lockdown, I have been inspecting the harbour waters adjacent to SH1 and the Harbour Bridge and noticed rapid changes that mirror what has been observed in Venice.

Water clarity has improved substantially. I can now see the seafloor. The seaweed that anchors itself here is now standing vertical, free from the sediment that smothers it. Schools of fish meander along the seawall, following a large eagle ray – a returning visitor not seen in a long time. And in the air, tōrea pango/oyster catchers, poaka/pied stilts and tūturiwhatu/New Zealand dotterel are seen more frequently.

All of this, in our biggest city, over the course of 2-3 weeks. It raises the question; how do we keep nature around once lockdown is lifted?

I think there’s an opportunity to look forward from this and recognise that nature is excellent at healing itself, if we give it a chance. You just have to look at organisms like shellfish and seaweeds that do a fantastic job at drawing down carbon and improving water quality by filtering out particles and extracting nutrients. The Hauraki Gulf has lost these natural filtering organisms over time, but there are ways to bring these back.

At Envirostrat, we’re looking to nature to solve our environmental issues and support our economic recovery – for example solutions like regenerative ocean farming using seaweed and shellfish have great potential to rebuild our ocean health, create jobs, and feed people. These initiatives can be a great complement to restoration initiatives, like Revive our Gulf’s work to reinstate natural mussel beds in the Hauraki Gulf.

The lockdown has given us an unprecedented insight into how nature can bounce back when given some respite from human pressures. It’s a powerful reminder that we all have a role to play in reducing our impact and finding solutions.  And if we look after nature, it will look after us. 

Fraser Stobie is an Auckland based environmental consultant at Envirostrat. He specialises in fisheries, aquaculture and marine conservation related projects. Fraser also co-ordinates the Tamaki Estuary Environmental Forum.

Eagle ray/whai repo (Myliobatis tenuicaudatis) is a common species found in coastal waters and estuaries around New Zealand. They get their name from their protruding heads, which appear eagle-like in profile. They are important predators of bottom-living invertebrates such as shellfish and bristle worms. They locate their prey using electro-sensory organs and excavate by blasting water out of their gills. The pools formed by their feeding pits are used as low tide refuges by small fishes such as gobies and juvenile flatfish. Eagle rays are common prey of bronze whaler sharks and orca/kakahi who regularly hunt them in the Gulf. They are most often seen in harbours and estuaries during spring and early summer, but also in our autumn months, and are most commonly seen in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park at the Tiritiri Matangi wharf.

MIL OSI