Research Medal Winner 2016
Dave Schiel

Distinguished Professor Dave Schiel – UC Research Medal Winner

Kaikōura earthquake – coastal tipping points, response and recovery


The rapid response to the Kaikōura earthquakes, backed up by 25 years of research, is proving invaluable in understanding large-scale impact and recovery rates for coastal marine ecosystems.

UC Distinguished Professor David Schiel has become familiar to many in the Kaikōura area through his work on how marine systems respond and recover from cataclysmic upheaval and other impacts. Two decades of small scale experiments had resulted in a wealth of knowledge to predict tipping points for parts of the Kaikōura coastal reef ecosystem. “There are stages at which there are tipping points in ecosystems. There are many stressors, for example, sediments that run off the land and smother algal beds, people walking on algal beds covering a coastal reef, the impact of wave forces on habitats in heavy seas, or over-harvesting of various species.”

Since the early 1990s Professor Schiel has supervised over 60 UC postgraduate students, many of them focusing on diversity function in their theses.

“We think about things on an experimental scale; for example on a scale of 10 to 20 people walking over a portion of algae-covered reef, it takes a year or more to recover. If you put 1000 people over it, what’s going to happen? We’re trying to anticipate the impact of different levels of human usage or natural forces and factors on the function of our highly diverse ecosystems.”


Response to the Kaikōura earthquake

In the space of two minutes, on 14 November 2016, the Kaikōura earthquake propelled over 100 km of coastal reef into the open air. In the days immediately following the Kaikōura earthquake a series of factors came into play which led to a rapid response by Professor Schiel and his academic, industry and research network. His marine ecology team and former students, who now work in research institutes, were able to arrive quickly and, familiar with the focus of his research and methods, get work under way. By 16 November the team was in the field and continued to work daily until Christmas.

“Everything was still there; the seaweeds and associated organisms were still attached. So we went out and assessed the diversity of the reefs, what was dead and dying – we counted the crayfish, the pāua, the seaweed and other invertebrates. We have this mini time series now of what was left high and dry, what was there on those reefs at the time of upheaval. This means we’ll be able to tell very specifically how things change through time.”

The impact on the pāua industry wasimmediately obvious. A video from the pāua industry shown to Professor Schiel showed about ten tonnes of pāua were left exposed on uplifted reefs.

“The solution isn’t simple. When you put pāua back into water, where are they going to go? They need rocky reefs. They also need biogenic habit because they eat seaweed – they’re herbivores.

“The thrust of what we’re planning to do in the recovery research is not just locating where there is rocky reef remaining underwater, but more importantly, what’s on it and how the biogenic habitat will regenerate.”

Connecting with the fishing industry and the wider community is at the core of his team’s work.

“We learned from Rena [MV Rena oil spill off Tauranga, 2011], to go out and speak to people, work with the rūnanga and the communities – they have perspectives, issues to air, various apprehensions, and want to know what is going on.

“Just knowing that there is a scientist who has a history of research in their area, and can tell them something about the likelihood of recovery and that someone is trying to do something and understand it, makes a really big difference.” Meanwhile, Professor Schiel is in negotiations to undertake further recovery research with the Ministry for Primary Industries | Manatū Aha Matua, in partnership with the Cawthron Institute in Nelson and NIWA.


Research Medal 2016

Professor Schiel was awarded the University of Canterbury Research Medal in 2016. He is widely acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s preeminent marine scientists. He is one of the few marine scientists who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and was awarded the title of Distinguished Professor by UC in 2015. In his 26 years at UC, Professor Schiel has worked on a wide range of topics in marine science, with outstanding and internationally recognised contributions in aquaculture, fisheries, kelp forest ecology, and the functioning of near-shore ecosystems.

He was co-awarded New Zealand Science Communicator of the Year in 2015 and was one of two scientists charged with coordinating $1 million of nationally important research on the impacts and recovery of the MV Rena oil spill off Tauranga in 2011. He has brought around $18 million in external research funding to the University.

UC SPARK research profile