Dynamic Seas

Fisherman onboard a boat overseeing a fishing trawl in the ocean

Using biophysical science to investigate how ecosystems work, are connected and how they respond to change; and providing an evidence-base for effective ecosystem based management (EBM).


We are tracing the fate of water and sediments from land through coastal food webs, evaluating connections between coastal and deep sea habitats, and identifying the effects of key coastal developments (for example, aquaculture) on food web connectivity.  

Tipping points are a rapid transformation that happens when an ecosystem loses its capacity to cope with change. To understand how they manifest in New Zealand waters, we are doing the first national marine experiment in estuaries, harbours and rocky reefs, to identify tipping points, risks and how systems respond to change.  

We are defining the ‘footprint’ of materials that stress marine ecosystems, such as contaminants, nutrients and sediment. We are using the latest in marine observational technology to collect data – including drifters and ocean gliders – and building better mathematical models to understand water flows within the region.

New Zealand’s deep submarine canyons vary in shape, physical characteristics and ecological productivity. To investigate what is behind this difference in productivity, we are using forensic chemistry to track the chemical ‘signatures’ of land- and coastal-derived plant material in the canyon’s sediment and food webs.

We are investigating the effects that suspended sediment from human activities, such as mining and fishing, have on the health and survival of important deep-sea species in the South Taranaki Bight. These innovative laboratory experiments will help us understand how resilient species are, and how quickly they can recover.

We are developing an innovative, high-throughput and cost-efficient way to quantify marine biodiversity using environmental DNA extracted from marine water samples. In our initial study, we identified the presence of around 60 species in the test areas, and could clearly distinguish species from neighbouring but distinct habitats.

Nelson Bays used to support productive green-lipped mussel, oyster and scallop fisheries, which have each collapsed within the last 10–50 years. A review into their decline highlighted sedimentation and bottom contact fishing as potential factors. This project will quantify the fishery losses attributed to historic and contemporary sediment from land, and identify the land-uses the sediment derived from. It will also investigate the additive effects of bottom contact fishing.

The uplift of Kaikōura’s coastline due to the November 2016 earthquakes caused an unprecedented loss of kelp forests, which provide habitat and energy for other species. This has significant implications for nutrient cycling, primary productivity and overall functioning of nearshore ecosystems. This project is investigating the long-term resilience of kelp thrust into shallow water in the subtidal zone, and the potential mechanisms affecting canopy expansion, colonisation and survival. This will help determine which kelp beds are likely to recover, the environmental conditions likely to promote recovery, and which beds are vulnerable to further decline.

Latest news and updates

Sun, sea, sand – and marine science

During Seaweek, more than 4,600 school pupils joined 6 Sustainable Seas researchers for 3 days of marine science fieldwork in Tasman Bay, as part of the LEARNZ virtual field trip Sustainable seas – essential for New Zealand’s health and wealth.

Tipping Points on Radio NZ

Tune in to tonight’s episode of Our Changing World (after the 9pm news) for an excellent in-depth piece that gets into the detail of what the Tipping Points project is investigating, and why.

Free school resources about ecosystem connectivity and tipping points

The Science Learning Hub has produced some excellent teaching resources based on our Ecosystem Connectivity and Tipping Points projects.