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He ika, he taonga: can nurseries help our fish?

Aucklanders have found out just how fragile pātiki (flounder) are, after trialling a new school-based fish nursery. Now they’re using the nursery to try and help endangered tuna (eels) recover.

Kaitiaki (environmental guardians), rangatahi (youth), kaiako (teachers) and scientists in Auckland are learning how to take care of taonga (treasured) fish species as part of a project led by Ngāti Paoa in collaboration with Point England School and Kauri Flats School.

“Our school theme for 2018 is ‘kaitiakitanga i ngā wā katoa’ [constant guardianship] and we want to genuinely practice what we preach about kaitiakitanga, not just talk about it,” says kaiako Jackson Vogt, who leads Point England School's contribution to the project. “It’s also been great to connect with local iwi and with other schools like Kauri Flats as an investment for the future.”

Catching flounder using a drag net

The project began with the team catching young pātiki from the Tāmaki Estuary and transferring them to a huge 1000-litre tank at Point England School, where the fish would grow into adults and be released back into the estuary.

“We are using mātauranga [Māori knowledge] and the maramataka to understand how pātiki live and when is best to catch them.” says Mahuika Rawiri, kaitiaki at Ngāti Paoa.

The maramataka is a calendar that contains knowledge about how wildlife – from pōhutukawa to pāua – respond to natural clocks such as the phases of the Moon and changes in season (Sun’s position).

Gathering the net

However, the rangatahi and the rest of the research team have gone through a steep learning curve. 

While they were able to catch the young pātiki at the right time, using the maramataka as their guide, they weren’t able to successfully rear them in the tank, because the fish died. Jackson says that this was really upsetting for many of the students, and they made sure that the fish all had a burial ceremony.

While this was far from the result everyone was hoping for, the investigators now understand much more about these important fish and just how sensitive they are to environmental change.

Close-up of young flounder in drag net

The rangatahi have also got much more out of the project than just knowledge about pātiki:

“I’ve really liked going fishing with my friends, and I like how the project is about caring for animals,” says Justus, 11.

Danielle, 13, adds, “It's great getting to know the others who are doing this, as we've not really worked together before.”

Flounder in the transfer netFlounder being transferred to the cool box before going into the tank

Dave Cooper, a local scientist who sets up aquariums tailored to different types of wildlife, points out that very little is known about domesticating the New Zealand flounder. This team is probably one of the first to attempt doing this, but Dave thinks there is a high chance of losing more flounder while trying to pin down what caused the deaths so far.

With this in mind, Jackson, Mahuika and others have decided to stop working with pātiki and instead switch their focus to saving tuna (eels), a hardier but equally endangered fish that is just as exciting and important to investigate.

“These ika [fish] are really important to our community – mainly Māori and Tongan – because of our relationship to the local Omaru creek and the tuna’s migration to Tonga,” he says.

Jackson says that he expects that the team will collect the tuna in Term 2 (May to July) and will be sharing what they learn later this year.

Showing students flounderGirl adding pātiki (flounder) to the nursery

Photo credits (first and last two photos): Isaac Lamsam, Jackson Vogt.

About the project

Ngāti Paoa logoPt England School logoKauri Flats School logoThis project is run by Ngāti Paoa in collaboration with Point England School and Kauri Flats School, with support from Dave Cooper at Aquaculture Services and the South Auckland Participatory Science Platform.

Scientists and locals collaborating around a table

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.

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