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  • The sea is our taonga. Our connections to it are strong. More than 75% of New Zealanders live within 10 km of the coast, and the sea is an important part of our Kiwi lifestyle – whether we use it for recreation, harvesting food and other resources or for spiritual wellbeing.

    The Ministry for the Environment reports that we have over 15,000 marine species in oceans around New Zealand, with around seven new species identified each fortnight. Scientists estimate there may be another 35,000 species yet to be discovered! Many species are endemic to New Zealand – they are found nowhere else on Earth.

    Our marine estate is also important for our economy and supports industries such as tourism, aquaculture, shipping and communications (submarine fibre-optic cables). Our seas are rich in resources including fish, oil and gas, and minerals. New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone is 4 million square kilometres – more than 20 times the size of our land area! New Zealand governs this area and decides who can use the resources.

    As a country, we face conflicts between the different uses of our marine environments. We are also aware that old ways of managing our seas are in need of a rethink. The Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge is tasked with helping New Zealand enhance the value of our marine resources while ensuring they are safeguarded for future generations.

    Synergies between classroom pedagogy and real-world collaborations

    The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) has a vision for all young people:

    • to be connected to the land and environment
    • to contribute to the country’s social, cultural, economic and environmental wellbeing
    • to understand the importance of balancing rights, roles and responsibilities
    • to be informed decision-makers as a result.

    Student-centred collaborative learning within classrooms is developing the skills required for future informed, participatory citizens. This mirrors the vision and objectives of the Sustainable Seas Challenge. It too recognises that social, cultural and environmental values are important. When decision-making is informed and collective, decisions about the use of marine resources are more likely to be accepted by Māori, industry, communities and the public as a whole.

    The Sustainable Seas Challenge is a real-world model of the types of engagement and action envisioned by the NZC. Its research projects provide modern contexts for exploring all strands of the nature of science, including socio-scientific topics, for example:

    • What are the non-monetary values of coastal and marine ecosystem services?
    • Why do we need to consider culturally appropriate ecosystem approaches?

    Working collectively

    The Sustainable Seas Challenge is working with Māori, stakeholders, scientists, social scientists, economists and policy experts to collectively develop a better way to manage our marine resources through ecosystem-based management (EBM). A key component of EBM is participatory decision-making. It is an inclusive way for decision-makers to involve diverse interest groups – a change from the old ‘top down’ decision process.

    Our goal is ambitious. Research in isolation is not enough – engagement with, and participation from, all sectors of society is critical.

    Dr Julie Hall, Director, Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge

    The Challenge is developing EBM as a tool to improve the way we (society) manage the competing uses of our marine environment. EBM is an approach that recognises the many interactions that occur within an ecosystem – including humans – rather than looking at single species or issues in isolation. Developing EBM is at the heart of all of the Challenge’s research. EBM is further explained in the article Looking at EBM.

    New frameworks for participation

    The Sustainable Seas Challenge’s vision is for New Zealand to have healthy marine ecosystems that provide value for every New Zealander. To do this, the Challenge has set up several research programmes.

    Our Seas

    This programme is investigating the best ways to increase participation in decision making from all sectors of society. One aspect is to investigate social licence – the public acceptance of a particular activity. See how this looks in action as parties work to restore the Ōngātoro/Maketū Estuary.

    Valuable Seas

    This is investigating the values that New Zealanders have for our marine environment, including social, environmental and cultural values as well as economic values. One project is investigating the blue economy, for example, creating kina oil using the shells, spines and offal.


    Māori have long-standing ancestral and other connections with the sea. This programme is developing innovations that enable Māori to participate as partners in marine management, provide for the practice of tikanga and support the Māori marine economy.

    Dynamic Seas

    This programme is investigating how marine ecosystems work and are connected, using techniques like eDNA to measure biodiversity, and researching marine tipping points and the effects of multiple stressors on an ecosystem.

    Managed Seas

    Managed Seas is the Challenge’s ‘tool box’ – it is developing models and interactive tools to support decision-making and indicate the effects of management decisions. One component is simulation models for Tasman and Golden Bays that will explore ‘what if?’ scenarios.

    Vision Mātauranga

    Vision Mātauranga underpins each of the Sustainable Seas research programmes (and the other 10 National Science Challenges). This programme is working with Māori to capture the needs and aspirations of all sectors of society, and unlock the potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people.

    Enabling EBM

    This programme is investigating the potential of New Zealand’s current marine legislation and decision-making to implement EBM. The Sustainable Seas Challenge is trialling EBM in a case study in Tasman and Golden Bays.

    Nature of science

    Each of the National Science Challenges deals with a key socio-scientific issue affecting New Zealand. Experts from many fields are working together to gather relevant information in order to draw evidence-based conclusions and to take action on their related issues.

    Related content

    Learn about the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge-funded work on the recovery of the Kaikōura coastline using drones to map the marine environment.

    Managing the seas around Aotearoa is a complex job. This article explores the use of satellites to locate dark ships that are fishing in our waters illegally.

    For more, see the range of content that we have developed using resources from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge in this handy collection. Learn how to create, use and share collections here.

    Useful link

    Visit the Sustainable Seas Challenge website.

    The Sustainable Seas Challenge has created a set of cards that introduce key elements of kaitiakitanga. The 11 Hui-te-ana-nui: Kaitiakitanga cards are available to download here. If you would like hard copies of the cards please contact Sustainable Seas notes that the content included in the summaries remain under the guardianship of the original knowledge sources.

    Big Blue Aotearoa: How our ocean connects us (and why we need to protect it) is an animated cartoon story by Toby Morris, in collaboration with Sustainable Seas on The Spinoff. It is a great way to encourage us all to be mindful of the role our moana plays in our lives and how we can all ensure it stays healthy and thriving for generations to come.


    This article has been developed using resources from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge.

      Published 13 October 2017, Updated 24 January 2020 Referencing Hub articles
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