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How can we keep tabs on our tuna?

Te Kūiti rangatahi are learning how to care for their ancestral home and its wildlife through connecting Māori knowledge and science.

The research team

Youth from Te Wharekura o Maniapoto in Oparure, headed by their kaiako Hōhepa Hei, are learning how to keep an eye on their local rivers and tuna (eels) through a Māori science project called Tūhonohono.

Tūhonohono, which means ‘join’ or ‘connect’, combines science and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) to help reconnect rangatahi with their environment, so that they can learn why kaitiakitanga (guardianship) is important and how to do it well.

The project is run by the Maniapoto Māori Trust Board, who enlisted kairangahau (researcher) Kiri Reihana from Landcare Research and Jodine White, Poutautoko of Maniapoto, to help create the connections between science and mātauranga Māori. The experts pass their knowledge to others in te reo Māori with some English, which helps to share the te reo terms for scientific components as well as concepts unique to Te Ao Māori that are tricky to translate.

Team carrying research materials from the cave

The project’s main field trip began at Te Ana Ureure cave, a taonga (sacred treasure) for many locals, especially Ngāti Maniapoto.

Kaitiaki and whānau (Ngāti Pēhi, Ngāti Te Kanawa, Ngāti Rora) welcomed the manuhiri (guests) into the cave with a pōwhiri. Then Toni Green, Kaitiaki o Te Ana o Maniapoto, explained the history of the cave and its surrounding environment, including how their tūpuna (ancestor) Maniapoto lived with a large tuna he named Pō Uriuri.

The cave still hosts a reservoir of water from a deep puna (spring) that flows into the Wairere stream running alongside and away from the cave. There are no longer tuna living in this stream – the last was spotted years ago. 

Testing acidityToni and other kaitiaki are monitoring the cave and its surrounding area, with the intention to restore its health and bring back the native plants and animals that were once there.

Te Wharekura O Maniapoto students are also learning to do this, in a way that is scientifically accurate and culturally meaningful.

At the Wairere stream, all the rangatahi, whānau, kaiako, kaitiaki and scientists worked together to look at and record the stream’s speed, acidity, clarity, temperature and conductivity (concentrations of dissolved minerals).

“We want to get a benchmark for how healthy the river is now, then we can compare future readings with this and see whether it is getting better or worse over time,” kairangahau Kiri explains. “If it is getting worse, then we can use what the data is telling us to work out how we can try and reverse this trend.”

Students measuring water clarity

The group then moved to a second site, where they checked a stream known to be a habitat for tuna. They had laid hīnaki (nets) the night before, to catch some tuna and learn about how these eels live. But when they pulled up the hīnaki, they were empty.

“This is probably because of the heavy rain we had last night, plus it’s not a great night in the maramataka [lunar month] for catching tuna,” says kaitiaki Taonui Campbell (Waikato-Maniapoto, Ngāti Rora). He tells us that he has caught many tuna in the stream, although with fewer numbers in recent times.

The third site was at Mangaokewa Reserve. Taonui revealed this to be another place of ancestral importance, since Maniapoto had lived up on the side of Mangaokewa Gorge.

Researching at Mangaokewa Reserve

After a big shared meal at the site for lunch, the rangatahi learned how to check the riverbed’s rocks for small insects, crustaceans and worms that might be living on them. These invertebrates are also used as indicators for how healthy the water is.

They also checked their second hīnaki, which they had laid at the Reserve the night before. This time, there was one baby eel. Despite its tiny size, the students were excited when they discovered this young tuna and spent time observing it in a bucket.

Checking hinaki at Mangaokewa Reserve

When the work was finished for the day, the rangatahi all shared what their favourite parts were.

“I liked looking at what was on the rocks we pulled out from the river,” says Boxza, 13. “I learnt that healthy rivers have lots of little animals living in them.” 

Tangirau, 15, tells us, “I liked testing the pH of the water with the strips and finding out how acidic the water is.”

14-year-old Moana adds, “I really enjoyed testing the water with the equipment, especially the water clarity tube.”

Young eel

Read more about Tūhonohono on the Landcare Research website

Find out about Te Ana Ureure's environment restoration goals

Read about kaiako Hohepa Hei's talk at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WIPCE)

Read kairangahau Kiri Reihana's Women in STEM profile

About the project

MMTB logoTūhonohono is a project run by the Maniapoto Māori Trust Board that contributes scientific components to Te Aho Tū Roa educational framework. It is supported through the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.


Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

Find out more


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