Mary Gardner is a pioneer spirit in community biology. In 1992,
shortly after getting her Master of Science degree in marine biology,
Mary became curious about the collapse of the cockle population
at Cheltenham Beach. The beach had once been a good collecting
spot, but they had all but vanished from the beach. A dedicated
count found only seven cockles on the whole beach. One day Mary
found a settlement of very small cockles. What would happen to
the spatfall? Would the population regenerate? She decided this
would be an excellent project to study.
She developed a proposal to conduct a shellfish survey of Cheltenham
Beach but soon discovered there were no funds to support such
a study. By now she realised the issue was important and, determined
to begin as soon as possible, she sought help from people who
lived in the area, especially members of the local Royal Forest
and Bird Protection Society. Together, they worked out a sampling
strategy and then, one day, congregated on the beach for the first
community based scientific sampling of the shellfish.
Mary was delighted to find that the people, from Grandmothers
to toddlers, enjoyed their foray into beach science. Their research
revealed the extent of the spatfall could, indeed, help the population
of shellfish recover - if they were allowed to grow up. The community
set up the Cheltenham Beach Caretakers and began to actively work
towards protecting their young shellfish.
The 23 October 1992 New Zealand Herald carried the story of Chelentham
Beach's determined effort to prevent the loss of their shellfish
beds. The community and local iwi asked the Ministry of Fisheries
for a closure of the beach to shellfish collecting. On 23 April,
1993, Fisheries banned shellfish collecting at Cheltenham Beach.
At the same time, the local Iwi installed a Rahui preventing the
taking of shellfish on the beach.
Mary Gardner moved to South Island where she is continuing to
develop her Neighbourhood Biology programme with some support
of Dunedin City Council. The programme aims to create an opportunity
for people to express and expand their experience of the place
in which they live. The participants use social survey and scientific
monitoring techniques in a community setting. They use the results
to create an exhibit for public display; and make a record of
activities using video and photography.
Community science projects, once started correctly, take on a
life of their own. Twice a year, the Chelentham Beach Caretakers
measure the stocks of shellfish and determine their condition.
The settlement of young cockles has matured and the Caretakers
are hoping the new adults will provide an even larger settlement
of young to rebuild the population to normal levels. Meanwhile,
the research team is expanding its efforts to find out what other
factors, besides fishing pressure, might be harming the stocks
or preventing successful recruitment.
Mary's efforts inspired similar community investigations at other
Auckland beaches. The Ministry of Fisheries, observing the surge
of interest of residents in the conservation of their shellfish
stocks, realised that Mary's idea of community science was of
very great benefit. The current effort to expand community surveys
of shellfish to other areas of New Zealand is a result of Mary's
If you would like more information about the Neighbourhood Biology
programme, contact Mary Gardner at PO Box 7, Warrington, Otago,