Dynamic Seas

Land-based activities are an important driver of change in coastal habitats (Waimea Inlet, Nelson). © Rob Suisted, New Zealand Geographic

We are investigating how human activities and environmental change can affect marine ecosystems.

Programme leader: Conrad Pilditch, University of Waikato

Understanding the biophysical response to these stressors is key to developing robust ecosystem-based management tools for Aotearoa New Zealand waters. 

Our research is exploring how marine ecosystems are connected, from coastal waters to deep offshore canyons. We are collecting high-resolution oceanographic data and examining ecosystem connectivity through the movement of contaminants, nutrients and sediment. Using novel biochemical tracking techniques, we are unravelling marine food webs, identifying sources of organic matter and investigating how contaminants are processed. This research will inform the extent or ‘footprint’ stressors have on the oceans. 

We are also helping to predict when an ecosystem might lose its ability to cope with multiple stressors and reach a ‘tipping point’ at which rapid transformation occurs. Tipping points can lead to a loss of valuable marine resources and ecosystem services. We are addressing three key questions:  

  • How do nutrients and sediments from the land contribute to tipping points in estuary and nearshore rocky reef ecosystems? 
  • When is a marine ecosystem likely to reach a tipping point?  
  • How does seabed disturbance and sedimentation affect coastal organisms and reefs?  

We are:

  • Developing new modelling approaches for determining ecosystem connectivity and contaminant dispersal. 
  • Enhancing knowledge of marine food webs and responses to human stressors and environmental change. 
  • Improving our understanding of tipping points in coastal ecosystems 
  • Providing information for decision-makers to support and inform ecosystem-based management of marine environments. 


Ecosystem connectivity: tracking biochemical fluxes to inform ecosystem based management

We are studying the connections within marine ecosystems and how they are affected by human activities.   

Tipping points in ecosystem structure, function and services

We are investigating how marine ecosystems respond to change, and identifying tipping points, risks and ways of managing them.   

Stressor footprints and dynamics

We are investigating how coastal waters and oceans mix and transport materials that can stress marine ecosystems. 

Submarine canyons: connecting coastal and deep-sea ecosystems

We are investigating how well submarine canyons transport materials from the land into deeper waters surrounding Aotearoa New Zealand.

Sediment tolerance and mortality thresholds of benthic habitats

We are investigating the effects that suspended sediment from human activities has on the health and survival of deep-sea species in the South Taranaki Bight.

Quantifying marine biodiversity using environmental DNA

We have developed an innovative way to detect species in the sea using environmental DNA (eDNA) extracted from water samples.

Estimating historic effects from sedimentation and fishing

We are investigating how historical and contemporary changes to sedimentation and bottom contact fishing may influence fisheries in Tasman Bay. 

Defining rocky reef tipping points associated with the Kaikōura earthquake

We are investigating the recovery and resilience of kelp forests associated with the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake. 


Latest news and updates

Maritime Museum Talk: Forecasting contamination

Watch recordings of our second NZ Maritime Museum breakfast talk from 19 August 2019. Ben Knight and Lincoln Mackenzie spoke about their research on forecasting and detecting marine contamination and harmful algal blooms.

New ways of defining seafloor resilience

A recent publication from the Tipping Points project identifies the factors that characterise how resilient a seafloor ecosystem is to change caused by stressors or disturbances.

Kudos Award for Drew Lohrer

NIWA researcher Drew Lohrer was named among eight winners in the 2019 Kudos Awards in early September.