Restoring our estuaries: Meet the Kiwi scientist advocating for change

Child pointing up while standing over an estuary

In our new climate-change reality, Dr Shari Gallop explains why one of our most overlooked marine features is in dire need of restoration and how we can help.

Marine environmental scientist Dr Shari Gallop, a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato and the 2020 recipient of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women In Science fellowship, has chosen to dedicate her research to Aotearoa’s estuaries. She talks to Thrive and unpacks why these coastal features are an integral part of the ecosystem, and how we can help to protect and restore them in our new climate-change reality.

Q: Firstly, what does a marine environmental scientist do?

My work is really varied. It involves a lot of research in the field, as well as teaching as a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato. My research focuses on understanding what is going on in our coastal marine environment, and how both natural processes and marine human impacts affect this. In addition, I help raise awareness about these topics through outreach and community engagement. The ultimate goal is to help us make better management decisions for our marine environments.

Q: How long have you been working in this area?

I have been doing research for more than 10 years now. My research journey started as a master’s student looking at rip currents on Tairua Beach in the Coromandel. After that, I did a lot of work on beaches. Over the last few years, I have shifted my research priority to estuaries. This is because of how important they are and because they are one of the most at-risk environments under climate change.

Dr Shari Gallop in an estuary
Shari works to preserve these precious wildernesses.
Q: Tell us about estuaries and how to restore them. What needs to happen?

Estuaries are shallow water bodies where rivers meet the sea. Most of the megacities around the world are based by estuaries (for example, Tokyo, London, San Francisco) and New Zealand has more than 300 of them. Many of our own cities are also around estuaries, such as Auckland, Tauranga and Christchurch. In the past, estuaries have been considered by some as “low value” – that means parts of them have been drained (for example, to make space for farmland). Generally, estuaries haven’t been looked after as they should have been.

Overhead shot of an estuary

Estuaries are really important. They are biodiversity hotspots, an important food source, and a transport link via ports. Many people know that trees are important for capturing carbon, but so are estuaries. Estuaries capture carbon in their mangroves, saltmarsh, seagrass and sediments (“blue carbon” is the term used for carbon captured in coastal areas or oceans). This means less carbon dioxide – a major greenhouse gas causing global warming – in our atmosphere.

A New Zealand dotterel walking across sand
Estuaries sustain both people and wildlife, including the New Zealand dotterel.

Estuaries are also nature’s water filters – filtering out sediments, nutrients and other pollutants. They are also culturally important, particularly for Māori. They have been (and are) a place to gather kaimoana, as well as a source of plants for rongoā and for weaving. Additionally, estuaries are a place to share community and pass down intergenerational knowledge.

Sadly, many estuaries in New Zealand and elsewhere have been degraded. Sometimes this is due to actions like moving rivers out of estuaries, and putting up walls and levees to keep out the sea. This is alongside not taking enough care of our river and stream catchments, which flow into estuaries. However, there is a global movement to re-nature the coast, sometimes involving large-scale engineering. This is what has been occurring at Maketu estuary in the Bay of Plenty, for example – a project I’ve been studying. This fellowship from L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science will support me in continuing this study.

Dr Shari Gallop sitting on sand by estuary with her children
Dr Shari Gallop, 2020 recipient of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship, says ordinary Kiwis can help ensure the health of our estuaries.

The hope is that restoring water flows can rebuild the estuary health and mauri (life force) for the local community. We know that people are closely connected to the health of the environment. My outlook, that is shared by many others, is if the environment is healthy, the people are too.

A key consideration in estuarine restoration is climate change. Estuaries are at the interface of land, river and sea. This means that they will be affected not only by sea-level rise, but also by changes in river flows. This is because of potential shifts in rainfall patterns and even changes in storm events. I think there needs to be greater awareness of the importance of estuaries and more focus on how they can be better managed under the complex impacts of climate change.

Q: What can normal Kiwis do to help keep our estuaries clean and safe?

This is a big question, but there is a lot that can be done by individuals. This includes:

  • Plant more trees: Too much sedimentation is a major problem for estuaries due to land clearance. Native vegetation along rivers and streams are especially important.
  • Don’t over-fish: Know the limits and stick to them, including for shellfish.
  • Reduce pollution: Use less plastics and dispose of them correctly. Don’t pour harmful substances like oil and paint down the drain.
  • Report: Tell your local council if you see something that is not right, such as illegally dumped rubbish or pollution spills.
Q: Does your research just focus on estuaries or are you interested in other waterways?

Estuaries are a major focus for me at the moment, but I also do work on beaches and, of course, I am acutely aware that estuaries are fed by rivers and streams. I am interested in all of it! They all make up the same system and I try to consider it as such in my work.

Q: What work are you most proud of? (We see you’ve done quite a lot!)

First, I am proud of being a mother to my two kids and still doing (what I think) is cool science. Also, I am proud that I have stepped out into spaces that are outside of my comfort zone and are forcing me to push my boundaries. This is where the awesome stuff is happening.

This includes leadership roles for gender equality in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], in my role as founding member and co-chair of Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering (womenincoastal.org). I also have a science communication role, which is a big part of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship. I am grateful for this experience, to encourage conversations about climate change and our marine environment.

Estuary wide shot
Q: How does your whakapapa and mātauranga Māori shape the work you are doing in Western science?

I moved back to New Zealand in 2019, after spending 10 years doing my PhD and working in the UK and Australia. Since returning, I have been on a journey learning how to connect Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) and mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) with my science, which I have found both challenging but also amazing at the same time.

Something I found surprising was that this has also been a personal journey for me, of learning about my whakapapa along the way. I whakapapa to Ngāti Maru in Hauraki on my dad’s side and Te Rarawa in Northland on my mum’s side. Growing up, I always knew this but didn’t know much about it. Now I have been researching my whakapapa, and I’ve found and registered with my marae, and I am excited to learn more and connect with my iwi and hapū.

I am a few steps into my journey of discovering my complete Māori identity and learning how to walk as a Māori researcher in science. It is very challenging both personally and professionally, but also very fulfilling.

I have been learning to question some of the ways I have been trained to view the world, how scientific research should be undertaken and for what purpose. I am trying to approach my research in a more holistic way that fits with Te Ao Māori world view, that acknowledges the interconnectedness of the world system.

It considers that humans are part of this system and have a duty to live in a sustainable way. I am still learning how to translate this into my research, but I am excited about using this as a foundation in the future. I am also grateful to have met some amazing people who are sharing this journey with me and helping me find my way.

The Tautuku Estuary in the Catlins in Otago
Walkways such as this one over the Tautuku Estuary in the Catlins, Otago, promote public access while protecting the environment.
Q: In Māori culture, protection of estuaries is important because many of them hold valuable food resources. Do we need to embrace more of that culture?

Absolutely, yes. Estuaries are considered taonga (treasure). They have important mahinga kai (food-gathering sites), and estuarine plants are used for weaving and medicine. For the same reason that some of the world’s most ancient civilisations are in estuaries (they are sheltered, productive, a source of fresh water and have good links to the ocean and up rivers), they have also been an important place where early Māori made their homes – and it’s also true of today.

Clams at the beach

Like all living things, estuaries are considered to have mauri (life force). In Māori culture, knowing the local environment in a holistic way, and knowing how to live in it sustainably, is an important part of kaitiakitanga (guardianship). Yes, we need to embrace this approach, because what we have been doing as a society needs a fundamental shift to make sure our environment is healthy long into the future.

Q: Why do we need to encourage more women into science?

I am completely behind encouraging more women into science, if that is their passion, although we have more work to do in retaining women too. It is well known that there is a “leaky pipeline”, where women tend to leave science careers for various reasons. I think the reasons for this are complex and diverse.

One of the most common things talked about is the “glass ceiling” – the invisible barrier that prevents minorities from rising, created by informal workplace cultures and customs that reduce chances of promotion. There are also many other things like gender stereotyping and assumptions that women can’t do their job well if they choose to have children. I am all for more women choosing to do science, but we also need to work on addressing these issues for retention so that they can stay in the field.

Q: How has it been for you, forging a career as a woman in science?

I really love my science career, even though there are many challenges each day. I have had to learn to let go of what other people think of me in my capacity of choosing to step out as an advocate for equality in science, both for women and also for Māori. Not everybody appreciates that there is a problem and I have had to grow a thicker skin.

One key thing that has been really important for me is having a good support network, and amazing mentors and role models. I have several mentors, both men and women, whom I trust and who have been major supporters. They are people I can talk to about anything, and who give me honest advice. These mentors have been, and still are, critical in me finding my way.

Dr Shari Gallop walking with her kids on an estuary
Q: Congratulations on winning the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship. How will that money help?

Thank you! I was really excited to get the phone call telling me I would be receiving this fellowship for the theme of climate change. I am truly humbled and grateful to have this platform where I get to talk about climate change, and particularly about the importance of taking care of our waterways, including estuaries. It is also humbling to think about how I may now be a role model for others considering, or who are at the early stages of, a career in science.

The money is valuable and will help me on my journey to find better ways to plan estuarine restoration projects that account for climate change. I am planning to use some of the money to help me get new equipment for monitoring changes in water flows and help me share my research to a broader audience, including at international conferences.

Q: It can also be used for childcare! You have two children, will you be taking that offer up?

My children are aged six (Bohden) and three (Maya). I think it’s fantastic that this fellowship can be used for things like childcare – I wish there was more of this! Sometimes it’s hard to get to events and do fieldwork because of childcare issues. My fieldwork is dependent on the tides, so sometimes I have to work early and/or late. I plan to use some of the fellowship to help with this, for sure.

Q: What is your advice for girls and women who are thinking about, or have started, pursuing science as a career?

It sounds like a cliché, but follow your passion and your heart. Don’t let other people or your past experiences put you in a box. Don’t let what people have said (or not said) put boundaries on following the path you want. If your passion is in science, go for it! It’s a challenging career but there is so much scope to choose your own way. When you work on something you care about, it’s all worth it.

Waders and gull on the mud of an estuary estuary Parapara inlet river in Abel Tasman National Park
Waders and gulls, in separated flocks, rest on the mud of an estuary Parapara inlet river in Abel Tasman National Park.
Q: Has Covid-19 affected the work you do in any way?

I found the lockdown quite difficult. About half my job is research and the other half is teaching. We had to quickly turn our teaching to online-only, which was challenging for very hands-on science courses. I also had my two young kids at home, and I felt guilty about having to keep working rather than spending that time mostly with them. It was lucky that my husband was also at home during this time. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would have managed.

I have a tendency to be a perfectionist (I am trying to loosen up on that) and a real planner, so having to do things on the fly with not much planning was interesting. But now I know I can do it, it’s made me more resilient and confident in myself.

I also feel that Covid-19 has broken down some barriers, in terms of working internationally and being more inclusive of people who can’t or don’t want to travel. Everyone has got so used to online meetings that I feel more connected internationally than I did before.

Q: What are the most important things we can all be doing to protect our waterways in New Zealand?

Everybody can be a part of taking care of our environment and waterways. It’s important to remember that we are part of our environment and everything is connected. In Te Ao Māori (the Māori world view), this is part of the concept of kaitiakitanga – which means people are part of our natural environment, we are connected by whakapapa to our environment and all the things in it, and should act as guardians. This is a good concept to use when thinking about how we can take care of our waterways. For the average person, this includes things like:

  • Reducing consumption of single-use plastics and disposing of them correctly. Pick up any rubbish you see.
  • Don’t overuse fertilisers and other chemicals in gardens (as well as in agriculture and horticulture).
  • Use environmentally friendly cleaning products.
  • Clean up dog poo so it doesn’t wash into waterways, adding more nutrients and bacteria.
  • Use a car wash (they should have filters to remove chemicals) or wash your car on the lawn if you can – this can filter the dirt and soap rather than it washing into our waterways.
  • If you go boating/fishing in freshwater lakes and rivers, ensure you check, clean and dry your equipment to prevent spread of pests such as didymo (“rock snot”).

IMAGES: GETTY, ALAMY, SUPPLIED.


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