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The Thing You Can’t Measure: Ocean Acidification Threatens Culture and Identity in New Zealand

Posted On July 18, 2014 by

Photo: Alexis Valauri-Orton

These last two weeks, I have shared stories of how ocean acidification could affect economies around the world. These tangible impacts can be measured by changes in jobs, access to resources and overall economic condition. But what about the impacts you can’t measure? What will those changes be, and how will they affect people?

Throughout my Watson Fellowship, I sought to understand these intangible impacts. These hard-to-measure threats to things like one’s sense of place, identity and culture may not have dollar signs behind them, but to many of the people I spoke with, they were of utmost importance.

To explain this, I will share what I learned about the value of marine resources in New Zealand. There are two strong cultural lineages in New Zealand – the indigenous Maori community, and the descendants of Western settlers, who came primarily from England. Despite their distinct backgrounds, my conversations with both groups came to the same conclusion: the availability of seafood in New Zealand, particularly shellfish, is a matter of identity. If that seafood is gone, then the identity of the entire country suffers.

In the Maori language, the words for generosity and the courtyard of the meeting house are the same: marae. Waiaria Rameka, a shellfish biologist working in Tauranga, New Zealand, told me that each marae in New Zealand is known for a particular food item. This food item is a source of pride for each marae, and in a showing of generosity, it is always served for guests of the marae.

For many marae in New Zealand, this treasured food is a species of shellfish. These treasured species, are “not just a form of food [for Maori people], they’re who they are,” Waiaria told me. This references the concept of “mana,” a Maori term which Waiaria defined as “a person’s being, or energy.” This energy, she explained, comes not just from you, but from your ancestors before you. The strength of you or your tribe’s mana depends on the strength of your culture and traditions.

Waiaria told me how the availability of a marae’s treasured species affects their mana, saying, “If we can provide [that food] on the table, that means our mana as a people is upheld and preserved.  If we can’t provide [that food] then our mana is degraded.” Because the strength of your mana comes from the lineage before you, a breakdown of a long tradition like serving shellfish to visitors breaks an important link, and therefore poses significant harm to your mana.

For the descendants of Western settlers in New Zealand, shellfish and other types of seafood are also a matter of identity. Jim Barett, an oyster farmer from Stewart Island, New Zealand, told me of how his ancestors saw hope for a new life in New Zealand. In England, he explained, “Only the wealthy had access to resources.” And so when the settlers came to New Zealand, “they saw a land of plenty and allowed free access to it.” All beaches in New Zealand are public, and under their fisheries management programs, each citizen has a personal daily allotment of fish and shellfish. Keep in mind, the population of New Zealand is only 4.5 million, compared to 318 million in the United States. Their fisheries sector is strictly managed, and when you combine a well regulated fisheries sector with a small population size, there are abundant resources remaining for non-commercial use.

When I asked Jim what he wanted for his children and the next generation, he said, “I’d like [them] to be able to carry on doing what I did. To go and get a feed of shellfish or fish whenever they want.” He told me this was something all New Zealanders feel; “We feel we have a birth right, to be able to go down to the beach and catch a feed. It’s a very, very important part of our culture.”

His thoughts were echoed in nearly all conversations I had with New Zealanders. They all talked about this “right” to the resources of the sea, and the importance of preserving the abundance of those resources. At the Our Ocean Conference, I sat next to Shane Jones, New Zealand’s Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, during lunch. I told him of how every New Zealander I spoke with talked about their right to catch a feed at the beach, and the need to protect fisheries and preserve that right. He chuckled and said, “That’s absolutely right.”

Though the fishing industry has a strong economic presence in New Zealand, the economy was never the focus of my conversations there. Each person, whether young or old, male or female, Maori or European, returned to the value of an abundant sea, and in particular an abundant source of shellfish. The value of this abundance was never told in dollars, but as a matter of identity.

New Zealand was not the only place I visited with an identity entwined with the sea, and shellfish in particular. The $3 bill of Aitutaki has a sea snail shell on the front, and one of the regional slogans of Thailand’s Surat Thani is “huge oysters.” Though the value of shellfish and other marine resources as a source of pride or identity may be hard to measure, I came to see that it was a critical part of the story of how ocean acidification will affect people.