Credit: Hauraki Gulf

Posted on 14 September 2023

Te Au o Te Moana - Voice of the Ocean: Dan Hikuroa

Dr Dan Hikuroa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato-Tainui, Ngaati Whanaunga, Pākehā) has a PhD in Geology and is an Associate Professor in Te Wānanga o Waipapa, Māori Studies, at the Waipapa Taumata Rau - University of Auckland, where he has also lectured in Anthropology, Geography, Sustainability, Environmental Engineering, and Business Studies.

Dan’s expertise is in the areas of Earth Systems, Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge and ways of knowing), climate change, natural hazards and rivers. He has contributed to community and participatory projects that have included: marine spatial planning; environmental management plans; natural resource use and management; natural hazards, disaster risk reduction, resilience; and industrial waste-site rehabilitation.

Dan uses Kaupapa Māori methods in his work with Māori communities to realise dreams and address challenges. He has undertaken many projects including Te Awaroa – Voice of the River, Whai Rawa, Whai Mana, Whai Oranga: Creating a world-leading indigenous blue marine economy, geothermal development feasibilities, planning river and catchment restorations, co-writing iwi environmental management plans, Independent Review Panel member of Sea-Change Tai Timu Tai Pari, hazard and vulnerability assessments and industrial waste-site rehabilitation.

He is Tumuaki Tuarua of Ngā Kaihautū Tikanga Taiao (Māori Advisory to the EPA), UNESCO New Zealand Commissioner for Culture, Co-Deputy Director of Public Engagement Te Pūnaha Matatini, member of Pou Herenga (Māori Advisory to the Climate Change Commission), and Pūniu River Care Board.


Published September 2023
Interview by Desna Whaanga-Schollum

In Dan’s words...

Kia ora tatou
He mokopuna tenei a Ngāti Maniapoto,
Waikato Tainui me Ngāti Whanaunga i te taha o toku papa.
I te taha o toku mama, he Pākehā ahau.
Ko Dan Hikuroa taku ingoa 

Kei te mahi au kei Waipapa Taumata Rau i Te Wānanga o Waipapa.
Ngā te me ki toku tohu pea ki roto i te Pūtaiao.

I work in Māori studies at the University of Auckland, but my doctorate is in science. The reason I'm in Sustainable Seas is [because] I bring scientific training, so I have a set of tools to explain or make sense of the world. But I also bring another set of ways of knowing, of being and doing consistent with mātauranga Māori and with te ao Māori.

I'm involved because of our ocean — we love her. The more technical answer might be that I studied marine biology, geology, and paleontology. So, I understand the ocean that way. [However,] a lot of the work I've been doing over the last 20 years has been within and for Māori communities, trying to help realise dreams and solve challenges. For those communities, the ocean often features, whether it be estuary[ies], harbours or even a little bit further out. The Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge is a committed effort to focus resources on things that are important to all of Aotearoa, including hapori Māori. This was an opportunity I felt that I'd like to explore. And as it turned out, there were research projects that [required expertise that] aligned with my skill set.

I'm in the Sustainable Seas team because of my experience on working on kaupapa related to the ocean and through my work with hapori Māori. As well, because of that sense of responsibility that comes with having been the beneficiary of higher education through the university system, and effectively that's taxpayer funded. It's about trying to get a return on investment for the New Zealand taxpayer, and that I can use a skill set and expertise and an understanding of how to do this rangahau, as much as why to do this rangahau.

You talk about mātauranga Māori within the science system, knowing, being, doing’ and pūtaiao, an identity that’s connected with the environment. I’m interested in this terminology.

In a sense, I’ve been a bit irked by seeing science translated as pūtaiao in many places. I can understand the desire to try and get equivalency between words [and worlds], particularly important words, like science. I trained as a scientist, I see myself as a scientist, I see immense value in science, in the scientific method and the strength that that can bring. However, in my mind and some of the coauthors who wrote that article on conceptualizing pūtaiao, too often when science gets done, it gets done on Māori communities. We railed against that as well as that definition of pūtaiao just being a straight translation of science. And so, we conceptualize it as kaupapa māori science and absolutely we're using the scientific method.

We think [of science that] it's a powerful and helpful method for generating reliable information that we can depend on, notwithstanding that we have methods like that with te ao Māori as well. But since we bring this scientific approach, we're doing it on the questions that hapori Māori have brought, we're doing it privileging tikanga, and the ways in which we do that work, we're being clear that we work for the taiao, for example, ‘Hey Dan, you know, we've got a real challenge here. You know, we're really worried about this or gee whiz, we've got this amazing idea that draws from our stories / pūrākau of the ocean and maybe then we can weave those together, I don't know... And, you know, we've got this amazing kōrero on rimurimu. And can we start to weave that together and bring some scientific techniques to explore new realities and opportunities or solve those challenges. So pūtaiao in the way that the co-authors and I envisaged it, was not to say that we don't think science has any place — far from it. We say science is immensely important for all of our futures. But the way we do it, how we do it, who we do it with, and who we include in that work is as important. And that's what we call pūtaiao.

In your introduction you’ve related that - as an employee of the University which is a role funded through taxpayers’ money - there is a responsibility to give back to the community. Reciprocity for what you've been able to achieve through that career. I think that's quite a different way of understanding how Universities sit within our social and cultural fabric; and how we are developing knowledge.  Also, inherent in the term pūtaiao - is a responsibility to community, knowledge and environment.

It’s extremely topical right now with some universities going through incredibly tough financial times and then the government signaling, a little bit of a pūtea boost to try and get things going. So that's what's happening right now. But back to the importance of academia, this is my take, and I know there will be other views; I find myself in an extremely privileged position to be able to do the kind of work I do. That is to both explore and undertake rangahau, with, within, and for, hapori Māori, hapori Pākehā, ngā hapori katoa pea. And then take the learnings from that rangahau and try and apply that to get better outcomes. What drives me as an individual is to help try and realise dreams and solve challenges.

Mostly that's been with hapori Māori, but not exclusively so, and being in an academic position enables me to do that. That brings us opportunities to generate evidence and knowledge, and ideally that evidence and knowledge informs things like policy and maybe even informs things like laws and new acts.

So, there's that interface between the role of academia and its contribution to society. I understand the argument for creating knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but that's not what drives me. I'm more about working with those communities to realise those dreams, help solve those challenges. So, it's the opportunity for that research to inform better outcomes — for that research to inform evidence.

Then the other part of that is about the training and education element. Drawing from that research and teaching those students coming through and training those postgraduate students coming through, I feel an immense amount of responsibility there as well.

I want my post-grad students to be better than me. Otherwise, I think I've failed. I say that because I believe they have the potential to do it, because some of them coming through now, they've been brought up in Kohanga and Kura so they they've had reo, you know, as the first knowledge, the first language, and the way of making sense of this world. And then we've got this other knowledge and other ways of seeing and making sense of the world.

In my mind, and I'm picking up on ideas that people like Professor Linda Tuhiwai-Smith have said, those taiohi can probably imagine things I can't even begin to understand or imagine. So, my role in this academic space is to ensure that that happens, to ensure that those with those two ways of seeing and making sense of the world can dream and imagine things that currently are unimaginable to me.

Another aspect of the role of academia is it to create the research that our communities want and need, but also to inform the teaching and then train our taiohi and all our postgraduate students coming through.

Within your or your work, or within your life, what do you see as unique to you about the Moana?

I'm going to share my response based on some learnings that have only really happened for me over the last eight years, and that is framing it in a te ao Māori way. As a youngster, you grew up learning about Tangaroa, and were taught in primary school he's the god of the ocean, so wow, that's cool! I didn't really know what that meant, but I knew he had an important role to play in the ocean.

And then in more recent times, there's another name for what cartographers have called the Pacific Ocean, which is Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa.

When I try and explain it to school kids I say ‘Tangaroa is like the kaitiaki of the ocean’. So maybe that's one way to think about it. We have Tangaroa and then we have people like Kiwa and then whakapapa. In my understandings, Kiwa is the male essence, the male element. And then Kiwa’s partner, his Hoa Rangatira, is Hinemoana.

What is unique from a te ao Māori view is that we have a kaitiaki. I’ve heard framing that says: Tangaroa is the kaitiaki of the organisms in the ocean; Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa is the physical the body of water that's enriched with sodium chloride and all those other dissolved minerals and things; and the personification [of] that body of water is Hinemoana.

To me, that's an elegant, simple, and beautiful way to understand that extremely complex myriad of relationships and networks that comprises what we might otherwise simply say is the moana.

Could you share a personal memory or moment when you felt connected to the Moana?

Yes, I was surfing at a beach about an hour's drive north of Auckland called Te Arai Beach, and it's only just dawned on me now, that might be a fitting name for the beach because of the experience I had. We’d driven up early with a buddy of mine, this is over 20 years ago now, and because the conditions looked good, we got there just as the sun was coming up over the horizon, and the surf was absolutely pumping. No one else was there and we got changed as quick as we could. We raced onto the beach to catch these amazing waves. And then a little a little pod of dolphins came in and we thought, ‘oh, well, that's amazing, you know, what a blessing this is’.

So, what was already a beautiful setting with both beautiful and perfect waves was just enriched with the presence of these dolphins. And the water was crystal clear. I took off on a wave and I looked across and I saw that two or three dolphins had also caught the same wave. And it's moments like that where you just think, wow! There is a sense of oneness with the ocean.

It was a real sense of connection, with the taiao, with the moana, with those dolphins. There was a sense of oneness that came in that moment.

What motivates you to work for better moana management?

It's that sense of responsibility again that, when you, when you deliberately and intentionally identify as Māori, that brings with it you know that responsibility to your tīpuna and to your uri. And the Moana is one of our tipuna. This overall sense of responsibility is further underpinned by the state of knowing that in places our Moana is suffering.

She's suffering in extreme ways in certain places. But I would argue there'll be very few places around the world in the ocean where it hasn't been impacted somewhat by human activities. So that motivation is around saying, ‘I know that, and I need to do something. I can't just know that and do nothing’.

It's a responsibility upon me of being a good ancestor that says we need to do something. So sometimes that research will be saying that policy setting is wrong or that law might be a bit off. Or it might be really hands on — it might just be working with that hapori Māori and saying, ‘How do we restore the seagrass here?’ How do we restore the mahinga kai?

I had a great lesson a few years back and it was an amazing thing. We were in a conference, and one of the keynotes said to us, ‘I just want you to try and get a sense of the importance of things in the world’. She invited us to draw breath together — inhale, exhale, and again inhale, exhale. She said, ‘of course, you know, we need to thank the forests for one of those breaths, and we need to thank the ocean for the other one of those breaths on account of all the phytoplankton that generate all the oxygen that we breathe.’

And so that responsibility for looking after the moana isn't just on account of some altruistic, cultural imperative. It's quite physical as well. We rely upon the ocean for the very air that we breathe. Now, that shouldn't be the sole motivator for the work we do. But it's another good reason and another good motivator for the work we do in the Moana.

To you, what specifically about the Moana is worth protecting and saving?

These questions around ‘what in particular is the one part you want to protect and save’ is kind of like a pick your favorite child question (lol). On the one hand, it's impossible to answer, yet you can share some examples and often for me it's around, ‘what is it that I can contribute? What are the things that I know, or the skill sets that I have?’ And that usually frames the way I answer.

Much of the rangahau (but not all), with communities, is focused on restoring the mauri, revitalising the mauri and the ocean space. That is the key thing that drives me.

In the work I do, what that specifically looks like is different in different places. In the work that I've undertaken with Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei in Ōkahu Bay, there are two, discrete pieces of work that contribute towards trying to revitalise and restore the mauri.

One was hearing that the kaumātua voiced their concerns that they felt the boats that were moored in Ōkahu Bay were poisoning the seabed. They observed that there weren't quite so many benthic organisms living around where those boats were.

The other one, is trying to understand and have a look at the kaimoana and the tuangi and the pipi. Those kaimoana species that used to be of immense importance to Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei.

From those two quite specific things, we did some simple sediment sampling and tests around the boats and then analysed them for heavy metals or trace metals. Sure enough, around the most well-maintained boats we found extremely elevated levels of toxic heavy metals — things like copper, lead and zinc. The main compounds you find in things like antifouling — whose job is to deter organisms from establishing on the boats — act as a poison. So, it was doing its job, but it was also coming off and impacting the mauri around those boats. A real simple sampling survey found evidence that those metals were elevated and impacting the mauri. That evidence was used by Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei in their submission to the Unitary Plan for Auckland. And today there are no boats — they have been removed.

The other piece of work we're doing is looking at the kaimoana, in particular the tuangi and the pipi, and try to understand, in order for those to be kai, there are certain conditions that need to be in place.

One of the conditions is that they're there to start with. The next one is that they are there at the harvestable size that's consistent with the tikanga of the haukainga.

The next question is, are there sustainable populations? Are there populations there that are breeding every year having successful uptake of the spat? Are those populations expanding so that they can withstand harvesting for kai? We're not confident that the populations that are present today are expanding enough and growing enough that they could withstand any harvesting at this stage.

The other factor that's important is about the kaimoana species being big enough that the populations are pumping, so we can harvest. Then it’s, are they safe to eat? Remember the Ōkahu Bay experiences quite frequent overflows from the waste and the stormwater systems. We haven't undertaken any of that work just yet. We felt that maybe once the rangahau showed that the populations were there and could withstand harvesting, then we would see, because that's quite an invasive analysis.

The other factor is just counting them to see the numbers and doing assessments to determine whether it's healthy, whether it's got viruses, pathogens, or trace metals in the flesh of the kai. We haven't done that yet because we didn't think we needed to at this point. For this, you would take a specimen of harvestable size and take out the flesh or the kai and do your test on it to see if it was safe to eat.

What’s your favorite Moana-related word or phrase?

I kind of alluded to this one already, and it's the framing of Hinemoana.

To me, the ocean has always been she’, because she nurtures us in so many ways, providing oxygen, providing kai and solace, and providing rejuvenation and healing. So, it's Hinemoana: it's genuinely about fully engaging with what Hinemoana means — it’s really that word that does it for me.

How would you describe the current state of the Moana in Aotearoa?

That’s a tricky question to answer in trying to have an overall statement on the state of our moana in Aotearoa. I'll go about answering this in a slightly roundabout way, and it all comes down to the ‘flaw of averages’. I didn't get my letters mixed then — I did say flaw because arguably if you have one foot in a bucket of hot coals and one foot in a bucket of ice, if on average we want around about room temperature, or body temperature, then we’re ok. But I think either of those feet would be screaming and in agony despite the sensations being caused by different physical affect.

I think the ocean is kind of like that.

I'll talk about places I know well: the Hauraki Gulf is under extreme pressure. There are lots of people fishing in it. I'm not going to be pointing fingers at different groups. All I'll say is there is a lot of fishing pressure and some of the fishing techniques that are used there can be destructive, and that's an impact that the Hauraki Gulf is feeling. Acting in the background is so much sediment getting washed into the Hauraki gulf as well.

These combined effects of fishing pressure, as well as this background of sediment coming in, mean [that] in places, the Hauraki Gulf is under extreme duress. Some of the language that's been used in the state of the Hauraki Gulf report is that it is slowly dying.

I think the language that's been used in those successive state of the Hauraki Gulf reports is kind of a tricky message… as, you know, we were out fishing earlier this year and we did catch some snapper. We got enough for kai and some of them were suffering from that condition – the white flesh syndrome, which now has been proven to indicate that those fish were starving. I feel a bit whakama about doing that, and plenty of people who go out fishing, say, ‘yeah, actually, you can still get a feed and what have you. So, you know, what's the problem?’

The problem is that we could be right on right on the brink of real damage. I know the evidence shows there's been some rejuvenation and recovery of fish stocks, yet we still hear stories of when there used to be schools of kahawai that were almost as far as the eye could see. And there are places where we have the kina barrens now.

There's no denying that we've had an impact on the mauri of the Hauraki Gulf, both from the activities in the ocean, as well as our activities on land, which impact the ocean.

So, for that part of our Moana, you know that's under extreme duress, maybe that could be better language to use. We saw just a few years ago, quite a warm summer and the description out at Ngā Poitu o Taramainuku - The Noises - from folks I'm working with out there - they could see the sponges ‘melting before people's eyes’.

Because the oceans are too warm right now, the usual biologic events that would happen, the usual spat coming in and taking up, those things aren't happening like they were. In other places that usually are a bit more remote, you can have experiences in the ocean where the mauri is really, really strong.

So overall, I would say that that the mauri of our ocean is not what it was.

But what we did see following some of the lockdown periods during the COVID times was that by simply not being active in the ocean in certain spaces, the mauri of some parts of the ocean really bounced back. That gives me hope that sometimes all it takes, is for us to just not be there for a little bit.

Sometimes, it might take a bit more than that, sometimes it might take less. But it gives me hope that now, although the ocean is under duress, with approaches like those that we're discovering and the Enabling Kaitiakitanga and Ecosystems-Based Management project, that we can keep revitalizing the mauri of the moana.

What’s the biggest challenge in marine management that you can see now? Is there something that New Zealanders can take on to support the Moana, which would align with your work at Sustainable Seas?

So that concept of addressing marine management, I think the biggest challenge is realigning the complete framing of that question. The Māori world view is we don’t manage the environment, we manage our relationship with the environment.

To me, that’s the biggest challenge that needs to be overcome. Yes, we have pieces of legislation on the one hand you can argue have worked, and on the other hand you might say that here, they have never worked. I’ve heard all those debates rehearsed.

I think that the framing that assumes that we can actually manage the Moana, manage Hinemoana, manage Te Moananui-a-Kiwa, manage Tangaroa. It sets us up for this false sense of machismo that we have the ability to do that. I think we need to switch that framing to say, ‘How do we manage our relationship with the moana?’

From there, even in the way that we might act within existing legislation and policies, I can imagine better outcomes.

For example, out at Waiheke, it was simply a matter of coming together for a Future Search, getting together a set of shared values in thinking about what we could do. From that point forward, with the support of everyone, Ngāti Paoa have shown leadership and said we're going to place a rāhui — with almost unanimous support. Then following it up with the legislative instrument, which is a Section 186A closure. Therefore, tied in with that idea of managing our relationship with the environment, comes in the idea of personal responsibility for our actions; versus adhering to a set of rules and only not breaking those rules for fear of the consequences of breaking those rules.

If people follow a rāhui because they know its place and they know it's a responsible thing to do, no rules ever need to be enforced. You don't need any fisheries officers or anything like that— versus thinking that ‘because there's no official ruling, I don't believe in that’.

I think that might have been a little bit of the case in a few other places. It certainly was the case for when Te Kawerau-ā-Maki placed a rāhui in Waitakere around the kauri dieback. There were a lot of people saying, ‘well, I don't adhere to; and I don't believe in, that system’, and completely missing that [point]. They asserted it was their right to walk in the forest, and that they weren't going to have any kind of group from anywhere, tell them what they can and cannot do.

What they missed entirely was it was also their responsibility to ensure that kauri dieback wasn't spread.

I think that's the missing element, and I hope that's not too esoteric, or academic. But I think that shift - framing around how our relationship exists with the Moana, can flow through to everything that we do.

What is an action that New Zealanders can take to support the moana?

That’s a large question. I think I'm going to cheat. I'm going to talk about a mindset that must exist before that one action. That is, that you care for Hinemoana, you care for your ancestor. In everything you do, you should have in mind being a good ancestor. That's the framing that I would say that people could bring in now.

In thinking about that one action: I’m thinking about something the little kiddies at the school that I do stuff with down the road could do, to the one action when I'm meeting with ministers, or with leaders of Science Challenges, or science program. That one action will look different to different people, and it will be based on their skillsets and their influence.

So, the one action I would say to all New Zealanders is, to know what your level of influence is and use it in ways that can restore the mauri and revitalize the mauri to the moana.

Like, at the local primary school, they're an environmentally focused school and they had some kids look at the litter. We've got milk in schools and in that plastic that comes off the milk cartons, they were finding that everywhere. So, they did a litter intelligence count and then I said, ‘oh where is it going to flow?’ They did some water and dye and they tracked where it all went across the drains. We asked, ‘how do we stop it going down there?’ So, they worked with a company, and I will name drop them because I think it's awesome, called Stormwater 360. They have litter traps that you put in under stormwater drains and they let the water go through and the sediment gets through, but it traps the litter. So that's those kids doing their bit to help out the Moana. I think that's a really nice example of action — it's going to be different for different people — that focuses on restoring the Mauri.



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