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Source: University of Waikato

Kura Paul-Burke used to be an early childhood lecturer in Hamilton. But a life-changing moment happened while out on a boat – and the mum of five, who had always had a love of the ocean, decided to have a complete career change.

“I went out to Whakaari, White Island, to go snorkelling as I didn’t know how to dive, and on the way back, I had an epiphany that this is what I want to do.

“So, I resigned from lecturing and enrolled in Marine Studies. Now I am a dive instructor, a skipper, and a scientific diver. I just love it.”

Fast forward a few years, and today Kura is a respected Associate Professor in Te Aka Mātuatua – School of Science at the University of Waikato’s Tauranga campus.

Her expertise in Mātai Moana – Marine Research, has seen Kura become a project leader for the Tangaroa programme within the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge. Kura is passionate about scientific research through a Mātauranga (Māori Knowledge) lens, combining her life-long love of the ocean, her Māori heritage, and science training.

Whakaari / White Island – Kura’s special place

Kura grew up in Kawerau and Whakatāne in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, attended boarding school at Turakina Māori Girls’ College in Marton and then studied at Waikato University in Hamilton.

Home is where her heart is, including Whakaari, off the coast of Whakatāne. It is also a place of a family tradition.

“I have five children (aged from 15-30). When they are near their 8th birthday, my husband and I – he is a dive instructor as well – bring them to Whakaari and get them to go snorkelling with their māmā and pāpā.”

Kura says the eruption on Whakaari White Island in 2019, ‘did and still does’ have a big impact on her.

Ōhiwa Harbour mussel bed regeneration and the ‘wicked starfish.”

One of Kura’s research projects was to work out why mussel beds were diminishing in Ōhiwa Harbour, in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

Mātauranga Māori techniques were used to assist the research.

“At first people thought it was overharvesting and the humans were taking all the mussels and being too greedy,” she explains.

“A rāhui (ban on seafood gathering) was put down for eight years and over that time the mussels were still disappearing. This helped us to identify that humans were not making the mussels disappear.”

Then they found the culprit.

“We found out it was the predation of an overabundant sea star.” She describes the starfish as “a wickedly amazing critter.”

Using Mātauranga Māori methods in science

Kura explains how conventional scientific methods are used alongside Mātauranga Māori, to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“We mapped the exact size and shape of a traditional mussel bed, using Mātauranga ā iwi with kaumātua.” Their knowledge set the baseline for the contemporary research and has proved invaluable for the research project as a whole.

They were able to find out how many traditional mussel beds there were and gained a good understanding of what was happening to them over time. The numbers were diminishing drastically.

“Mussels are really important species both ecologically and culturally. We worked with four iwi and three councils and set up a kaitiakitanga (active guardianship) project that is co-developed with iwi and included the establishment of a restoration project which is going really well.”

“Our mussels were disappearing at a rapid rate. There were many variables like warming sea temperatures and climate change which have an impact but in Ōhiwa harbour it is predominantly by the predation of an overabundant sea star which eats a lot of mussels.”

While many people were saying ‘get rid of the starfish’ Kura says they are a native species.

“They have their own mana and their own mauri (life force) because they are from here.  They are meant to be here.”

Ditching plastic in favour of natural fibres

A restoration project was set up to try and regenerate the mussels that are already showing some early signs of success.

“We set up a series of restoration stations in the harbour, and part of that is we have mussel spat lines or mussel grow lines like they use in aquaculture.”

“Mussel spat lines are heavily plastic-based. So, using mātauranga Māori, we decided to create natural resource lines. We used traditional methods and materials to assist a contemporary problem.”

Using easily available natural materials, like the bio-waste from fallen cabbage tree leaves, the team made spat lines for the mussels to grow.

The project so far has been very encouraging, in September a second generation of lines were put in the water.

The research has been assisted by funding from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, which is focused on enhancing the use of our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints in Aotearoa New Zealand.