OPINION: Bob Marley famously once sang: If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from.

It has been 250 years since the Endeavour entered Queen Charlotte Sound/Tōtaranui.

Niwa marine ecologist Dr Sean Handley and I were curious to know what the Marlborough Sounds ecosystems were like then, how the land and marine environments have changed over time, the state today, and how might these ecosystems look in another 250 years.

We recently published our findings in the international science journal Ocean and Coastal Management. It is freely available by clicking here.

Before we do the big reveal, let’s travel back in time to stand on the deck of the Endeavour.

The sweet sound of melodious bird song emanates from the largely intact old-growth forests, and the coastal waters teem with fish, reflecting the health of land and sea.

Our vessel is not the only one on those azure sun-lit waters though – many waka meet Captain Cook and his crew.

They show us how they fish by lowering a flax basket baited with paua, then gently lifting the unsuspecting fish out of the water. It doesn’t do damage to the seabed.

Sidney Parkinson painting of Queen Charlotte Sound 1770 (c) The British Library Board, Add. 23920 f.44.


Sidney Parkinson painting of Queen Charlotte Sound 1770 (c) The British Library Board, Add. 23920 f.44.

We dive overboard and open our blurry eyes to see a seabed skyline of tubeworm towers, described by renowned Niwa ecologist Dr Drew Lohrer as Marlborough’s version of coral reefs, which hosted a dazzling abundance and diversity of fish and marine invertebrates.

When we surface from this beautiful dream, we find we have emerged into the year 1825. The waters are now bloody and turbulent as we dodge the painful thrashing of a southern right whale, harpooned by an American whaling ship.

Within 10 years, the whale nursery grounds of Port Underwood and Tory Channel have become funeral sites.

It is not the first marine species to become locally extinct though, early Māori had wiped out sea lion, elephant seal, and Waitaha penguin colonies.

We dive back down to escape the carnage, only to be yanked up by an oyster dredge in 1863. These succulent species were the next to be clear-felled as exports to saloon bars in Blenheim and Nelson, and the beds were largely exhausted in Tory Channel by 1900.

Thinking things couldn’t get any worse, we seek refuge amongst the underwater tubeworm towers, only to see now the ruins of what looks like a bombed out city. Fish skittishly evade the first bottom-trawls of the early 1900s, and sediment from cleared land clouds the water.

We glimpse tens of thousands of ‘Picton Bloater’ pilchards streaming past us in their winter migration, pursued by false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins. Soon the bloaters largely disappear too, scoped up for canning periodically from the 1880s to the end of World War II.

We surface to find shelter in the native forest, only to see small areas now remain amongst the numerous sheep and cattle. The shallow soils on the steep hillsides slip after heavy rain, taking pasture and sediment into the sea, to add to the legacy from mining a century before.

Forestry sedimentation is a big issue in the Marlborough Sounds.


Forestry sedimentation is a big issue in the Marlborough Sounds.

By now, it is the 1960s and we dejectedly roam around the foreshore looking for a feed of green-lipped mussels. This once abundant shellfish are now scarce as they are picked off the rocks by the sackful, to be shipped north. Dredges gobble up the last sub-tidal beds.

We fall asleep on the empty shore and are drenched woke in 2020 to a flow of mud-laden flood water. We blearily glance up at the clearfell pine blocks, like raw boils across the landscape, reflecting the ongoing absence of love for our natural environment.

Overfishing of snapper, blue cod, paua and the scars of thousands of scallop dredges have all contributed to ongoing pressure on the ecosystems of the Marlborough Sounds, as the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s arrival rolls around.

Unfortunately our time machine breaks. We are stuck here. We search for inspiration.

We take one last dive, this time into the only marine reserve at Long Island, the area of which is less than 0.01 per cent of the entire Sounds coastal marine area. This tiny haven gives us hope as we surface to ask the question: what will the next 250 years hold?

We decide we can either moan about what we see now, or we can pull our collective finger and change the story of the Sounds from this point forward. The choice is ours, as is the future past we wish to leave, as our collective generation’s legacy for 250 years hence.

Dr Steve Urlich lectures in environmental management at Lincoln University. The views expressed in this article are his.

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