Sea Keeper Profile

Mary Gardner, Marine Scientist

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 successful work.

If you would like more information about the Neighbourhood Biology programme, contact Mary Gardner at PO Box 7, Warrington, Otago, NZ).