Disaster Recovery

RECOVER Kaikōura Earthquake research

The 2016 Kaikōura earthquake resulted in changes to the physical structure of the northeastern coast of the South Island. In many places, reefs were uplifted and raised several metres above historical high tide marks across 130 km of coast. Though quantifying the change is difficult, uplift has impacted the coastal environment in multiple ways by altering physical topography and biological communities. The Reef Ecology & Coastal Values Earthquake Recovery (RECOVER) project has been developed to research these changes. The project unites scientists across disciplines to research and understand the impacts of the 2016 earthquake and opportunities to assist recovery.

About the project

The RECOVER project has been funded by MBIE to collect data on recovery of the natural environment with a focus on the short to mid-term prospects for key species and habitats along the coast. The RECOVER team includes researchers from UC, Cawthron and NIWA, internaitonal collaborations and local research partners. We are particularly interested in understanding the nature of earthquake impacts, detecting barriers to a full recovery, and investigating how long it might take.

RECOVER is aimed at helping the coastal environment return to a ‘new-normal’ following the earthquakes. Linkages with stakeholders and collaborators are a big part of the RECOVER project as we aim to assist the community to recover from the earthquake impacts. We hope that the research will be particularly useful to local government, iwi and rūnanga, local industry and the wider community. As we already know the earthquakes have caused massive changes, RECOVER focuses more on what happens next. Some main themes of the project include predicting the recovery trajectory of taonga species and natural resources along the coast, and working out how we can help them fully recover.

Look out for opportunities to get involved through public talks and other community events. If you’d like to find out more please contact us anytime.

Recover newsletter

Short updates on our Kaikōura earthquake research are available in the
Recover newsletter.

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2021 highlights

Coastal environment recovery: We have a much clearer picture of what ‘recovery’ looks like along the earthquake-uplifted coast, building on previous work [1]. Detailed sampling of intertidal and shallow subtidal zones at 26 sites has provided a benchmark for assessing recovery trajectories. This database, with c.1 million entries, encompasses c.150 species and their abundances annually since the earthquake [2]. We documented near-total mortality and poor recovery of bull kelp (Durvillaea spp.) at most sites which is concerning ecologically and as a taonga species important for their large biomass and habitat-forming role in coastal assemblages. There is notable expansion of red algae beds into areas formerly occupied by large brown algae. Red algae are tenacious, less affected by low light conditions, and resistant to recruitment of large brown algae – clearly showing that ‘recovery’, does not mean ‘return to the former state’. However, drifting red fronds provide food for taonga species such as pāua (Haliotis) and turban snails (Cookia and Turbo), so are functionally important in the altered food web. Long-term implications are unclear and require further work.  The mid-upper intertidal zones remain almost entirely barren of macroalgae. Recovery has been slow because of vastly altered topography and physical conditions, regardless of degree of uplift.

Tools for coast-wide assessments: Despite intensive field campaigns entailing thousands of person-hours, important broad-scale changes in the recovery process can only be understood using high-tech tools and remote-sensed approaches. We developed a LIDAR-based analysis using data provided by LINZ and NCTIR, to understand coast-wide changes in topography at the position of the new intertidal zone. Additional to rigorously quantifying relative sea-level change at field sites, the analysis detected ongoing (post-quake) change from influxes of sediments and gravels, both major inhibitors of recovery [3]. Results show that a highly heterogeneous pattern of stressors are affecting coastal recovery additional to relative sea-level change from uplift. In complementary work we developed aerial drone assays for monitoring of broad-scale vegetation change and ground-truthed their utility and limitations [4]. We also used drone data and ground-truthing to assess effects of marine heatwaves on large brown algal assemblages [5]. These studies are the first demonstration of important interactions between heat waves and compromised water clarity – two increasingly important stressors of coastal zones. The overall loss of ‘ecological infrastructure’ from the combined effects of the earthquake and other stressors has resulted in a highly variable and general slow process of recovery [6].

Paua recovery: One major success has been our work on devastated pāua populations. We have found consistent natural recruitment of pāua over several years in our extensive sampling and experiments in >30km of juvenile under-rock habitat. We showed that growth rates of juveniles are among the highest ever recorded, which is relevant consideration for reopening the fishery [7]. Our work with iwi and pāua industry collaborators on enhancement of populations with hatchery-reared juveniles has been remarkably successful with good growth and survival of released juveniles. Using combined habitat mapping and natural population analyses, we can delineate areas of suitable habitat for industry and communities to enhance using protected area methods and/or translocations.

Algal recovery: ‘Restoration’ can only be done where the physical environment suits the life histories and habitat requirements of target species. Our field trials of techniques to re-establish habitat-forming algae highlighted their vulnerability to shifting physical conditions on post-earthquake reefs.  A suite of key species progressed well from initial out-planting but then died, mostly from shifting gravels that come and go across rocky substrata. Bull kelp and Hormosira recruits were also vulnerable to elevated summer temperatures. These geological-biological-ecological interactions underpin the slow recovery of areas formerly occupied by large algae.

Research partnerships: A major achievement for 2021 involved collaborative subcontracted work with Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura (TROK). With rūnanga member Jason Ruawai, we developed hatchery rearing of pāua, and ran events with school students and community. The Kaikōura pāua hatchery is an excellent platform for collaborative work and a practical tool for enhancement of taonga species. Other key achievements include a survey of recreational uses on uplifted beaches to inform Marlborough District Council bylaw development [8], and a report summarising post-quake conservation values and threats based on our field work. This material is cited extensively in Council reports and public engagement materials and attracted considerable media interest. We also established a new restoration initiative for threatened dune ecosystems in 3-way collaboration with our Marlborough partners. We’ve also collaborated with ECan, DOC and TROK to help develop several coastal restoration projects informed by data collected in post-quake surveys, and some are now underway.

Outreach & community interactions:  In our last year, we had >400 significant interactions with collaborators, iwi, community and management agencies to provide underpinning research for new management tools on the recovering coastline. We designed and delivered lessons for Ward School, Nayland College and Kaikōura High School additional to numerous workshops and public talks. We engaged in experiential lessons for Grade 7-8 students at Kaikōura High School, which foster awareness of kaitiakitanga with rangitahi. Lessons combine customary Māori knowledge with modern scientific methods to demonstrate kaitiakitanga in the context of earthquake recovery. Collaborations with ECan, KDC, DOC and TROK include restoration plan development at several locations, information for regional coastal plan review, and input to monitoring programmes. Our work on pāua recruitment, growth and habitat informed the current proposal for re-opening the fishery in collaboration with Fisheries New Zealand, Pāua Industry Council and Te Korowai.

Link to references here

[1] Schiel et al. (2019). Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 29(9), 1520-1534. doi:10.1002/aqc.3122

[2] Alestra et al. (2021). New Zealand Aquatic Environment and Biodiversity Report No. 253. Report prepared for the Ministry for Primary Industries. 46pp.

[3] Orchard et al. (2021). GeoHazards, 2(4), 302-320. doi:10.3390/geohazards2040016

[4] Tait et al. (2021). Remote Sensing, 13(16), 3136. doi:10.3390/rs13163136

[5] Thomsen et al. (2021). Diversity and Distributions, 27(12), 2369-2383. doi:10.1111/ddi.13407

[6] Schiel et al. (2021). Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 9(827). doi:10.3389/fevo.2021.767548

[7] Gerrity et al. (2020). Marine Ecology Progress Series, 656, 153-161.

[8] Orchard et al. (2020). Report for Marlborough District Council. ISBN 978-0-473-54390-7 (Print), ISBN 978-0-473-54392-1 (Online). 42pp.

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