Posted on 12 October 2022

Te Au o Te Moana - Voice of the Ocean: Chris Cornelisen

Chris Cornelisen is Chief Science Capability Officer at Cawthron Institute, part of the leadership team of Sustainable Seas, and theme leader for EBM in action.  

Chris Cornelisen’s voice breaks as he describes the first time he felt true awe at the sight of the ocean. He was driving down to his first job out of university, a position in the Florida Keys at an ocean-based education facility for youth.  

“You go across these really long bridges, and the longest is called the 7-mile bridge. I can still picture driving over that bridge. When you’re on it, you can see every colour of the ocean. 

“It was everything I had dreamed of, and so it felt like my dream was coming true, it was like coming home.”  

That dream had started as a child growing up in Chicago, 1,300 km from the nearest ocean but on the shore of Lake Michigan.   

“I can still visualise art pieces I did in second grade of underwater seascapes, despite not actually seeing the ocean until I was a teenager.”  

What drew him to saltwater despite being raised by a Great Lake?  

“The allure, the mystery of it. Reading Moby Dick, stories about pirates, and watching old classic movies about the ocean. It was a mysterious place that drew my interest.”  

That fateful drive over the bridge wasn’t the first time he’d seen the ocean, having visited Florida as a teenager, but it was the first time he’d had a chance to truly contemplate it.  

After graduating with a degree in biology, and a minor in business, the job he had on the Florida Keys taught him that he could make a career out of working with the moana. That his future lay in helping the sea - and sharing its story with the world. 

From the US to NZ  

That work led Chris to Aotearoa New Zealand, to Cawthron Institute, and then to his involvement in the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge. He was there during Sustainable Seas’ inception and explains why the work is important.  

“Before the National Science Challenges came about the mechanisms or platforms to allow collaboration in the way it needs to happen didn’t exist. You also need the ethos, and we have the set objective we’re all working towards.”  

That objective is better management of our marine environment, one that Chris is passionate about.  

“I’m intimately aware of our reliance on the moana for our very existence. No ocean, no people. This giant body of water that gives us so many things for life on the planet, but also provides kai, recreation, and spiritual connections.  

“The very thing we’ve been looking at as a source of wealth, is actually the source of our own life and existence – and we have to be looking at it in that way.” 

Chris remains an eternal optimist when it comes to ocean health, saying the moana is resilient and the degradation being seen within it can be reversed. The challenge lies in the fact the problems the moana is facing are “out of sight, out of mind” for many, including those in government departments.  

“They can’t see the degradation that a scientist, a fisherman, kaitiaki, know is occurring. So it’s hard to bring the ocean into the spaces where decisions are made.”  


Change starts at home 

But change can happen outside of those spaces.  

In the same way that multiple stressors combine and cause cumulative effects in our marine spaces, the cumulative effect of people coming together “could be tremendous”, Chris says.  

“You can do little things locally, incrementally. I think we could do more of that in New Zealand. I’m not saying everyone can go out and plant dune vegetation for example, but I do think being actively involved raises the conversation and attention to issues that are at play.” 

Chris says participating in local elections is also very important, and nurturing potential candidates who are aware of how things can work differently, and can become more actively engaged in local and national politics.  

“Unless policy is being influenced, we may struggle to move the dial much, but local communities can make a huge, huge difference if they come together and start working towards that change.”  

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