Author Archives: Mike

What are museums even for?

I’ve been working in and for natural history museums for nearly 30 years. Most people I meet don’t understand what a museum is for. Worryingly, some of the people who run them don’t seem to either. The telling phrase, always uttered with an air of incredulity, is this: “Only 5% (or a similar tiny fraction) of the collection is on display!” The implication is the museum is somehow failing, and should display More Stuff.

Well, they used to display More Stuff; a century ago a typical museum had thousands of objects packed into cases with cryptic labels and no context, and people complained: they were dull and stuffy and never changed. Museums now spend quite a bit of their budget and staff time developing new exhibits, with well-written signage and videos and interactive games. But it’s hard to satisfy everyone, because of a basic fact most people don’t know. Museums are not for exhibitions.

Te Papa has 150,000 pickled fish. How many would you like on display? Definitely not 5% of the collection; most are pretty unattractive, and of interest only to a fish researcher. Which is fine, because that’s who they’re for. A museum’s collections are for research, not display. It’s nice that some of the collection is interesting and educational, but that’s not why it’s there. The best analogy of a museum is an archive or research library. In the National Library in Wellington, you can see the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1893 suffrage petition, and He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence, but the National Library’s business is not putting on blockbuster exhibitions. Its librarians concern themselves with public enquiries, academics and researchers, and most importantly preserving the publications of New Zealand for posterity.

Libraries are charged with making the treasures they hold as accessible as possible to the public, but if they tried to put every book and pamphlet, or even 5% of them, into a little perspex case with an informative label, they wouldn’t be able to do anything else. So why do we expect this of museums? Like a document archive, a museum’s first job is to act as a storehouse and protect its collections. A feather cloak will moulder and decay if you keep it under the bed. A moa bone on the mantelpiece will be cracked and broken within a generation. A museum with climate-controlled storage and acid-free packaging can at least make sure this stuff is available to future generations. Delicate insect specimens collected by Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage in 1769 are still carefully preserved and intact in London and Copenhagen, and curators strive to make sure things acquired today will last for 200 years.

A museum has to collect; if it relied on donations, it will end up with nothing but the old, the unwanted, and the durable, dropped off on the way to the dump. Museums end up with lots of ironmongery, typewriters, and childhood shell collections—but a good museum curator will be out there after the Women’s March on Washington, collecting discarded placards and pink pussyhats. Museum collecting has been (wrongly) blamed for driving species extinct, but much of what we know about huia comes from the small proportion of specimens that ended up in museums, not shot for their tail feathers and dumped.

And finally, a museum has to do research. Museum collections are invaluable for learning about human history, evolution, biodiversity decline, and climate change. New species are constantly being discovered in museum collections, and this sort of taxonomic research can only be done with the massive comparative collections museums have built up over centuries. All museums have, or should have, a permanent staff of researchers, historians, and scientists. They’re called curators, and their numbers are, sadly, declining. When a moa skull came up for auction on Trade Me, I suggested the best place for it was a museum. Commenters were livid: museums already have plenty of moa bones, and they never put them on display. But museums aren’t for displays; moa bones are irreplaceable, and need to be somewhere they can be looked after for centuries, not flogged off online for a quick buck.

Museums look after our natural and cultural heritage. They’re archives of objects, libraries of shells and shoes, research institutes devoted to the study of things. Millions of things. We sometimes forget what they do, because our experience is what we see on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But museums are much more than that.

(A version of this appeared in New Zealand Geographic 158, July–August 2019)

A Wikimedia Strategy for a Radio Station

I had a chat with Nelson radio station Fresh FM, and they were very interested in what Wikipedia and Commons might mean for them. The following is a crash course in copyright and WikiCommons for them, and any other radio station or sound archive.

  1. Under NZ law, the station owns the copyright for any creative work created by its employees (audio and photos) in work time unless their employment contracts state differently.
  2. Again under NZ law, that copyright is automatically All Rights Reserved for 50 years after the end of the year the work was made or first broadcast (whichever’s later). That means no making copies, sharing, mixing, quoting etc by anyone without the station’s explicit permission.
  3. A few exceptions for criticism and study, but that’s it. No “non-commercial” exemption. No parody/satire exemption – that’s illegal in NZ. No “Fair Use” (that’s American).
  4. What if the station goes bust in the next 50 years? Whoever buys the assets buys the copyrights. Sometimes it’s impossible to know who the copyright holder is, so the work’s effectively unusable.
  5. Listening to a podcast is not “making a copy”. Nor is streaming it. Posting MP3s to one’s own website or emailing them to people is though.
  6. There is a licensing scheme called Creative Commons that lets you choose a more lenient licence than All Rights Reserved. Examples include CC Attribution (anyone can use the work for any purpose but they have to credit the copyright holder), CC Attribution Share-Alike (ditto but anything remixed out of the work has to be shared under the same open licence), and CC Attribution Share-Alike Non-Commercial (ditto, but nobody can make money out of it). More here.
  7. “Non-commercial” sounds great, but it stops any other media from using the work, as well as some heritage organisations, publishers, educational establishments etc. Also you’ll want to have a lawyer enforcing it.
  8. Wikimedia Commons (WikiCommons) is the sister website to Wikipedia, and stores all the maps and photos Wikipedia draws on. It also has some video and a little bit of audio. Everything in WikiCommons is shareable under an open licence like CC Attribution, CC Attribution Share-Alike, or Public Domain. Notably, “non-commercial” is NOT an open licence, so WikiCommons can’t host it, so Wikipedia can’t use it.
  9. Copyright holders can choose to share their work to WikiCommons under an open licence. It’s effectively an irrevocable donation, and only they can do it – there’s a short legal document involved.
  10. There are a multitude of possible uses of radio in WikiCommons, emphasis on educational and encyclopedia-useful content: • Someone stating their name and occupation, which can be added to their Wikipedia infobox so people can hear how their name’s pronounced • An explanation of something in their own words, such as an artist talking about their work • A song or musical performance (note that the tune and lyrics might be copyrighted to someone else, even if the recording’s copyrighted to the station – it gets complex) • Oral history of an event or place that’s in Wikipedia • Historic broadcasts from the archives • Pronunciations of words in a New Zealand accent, or Te Reo pronunciations of place names by a local speaker
  11. Audio needs to be converted into an open file format (see instructions)
  12. A station that wanted to share audio should create a Commons category (example) and uploads should be made by someone with a Wikipedia account and something on their user page making it clear they’re an employee and authorised to release audio to Commons. I suggest working with an experienced Wikipedian to set all this up.

Smaller stations can take the lead on this while big stations spend years arguing about protocols and procedures. No radio station in NZ is engaging with Wikipedia or WikiCommons yet. Any community-centred radio station should see releasing some of this audio under an open licence as part of their mandate to share their work. WikiCommons is archived permanently, so that audio will be safe no matter what happens to stations or archives in NZ in the future.

A digital strategy for a small museum

These recommendations were developed after meeting with Otautau Museum, Southland, on April 24, 2019, but they’re applicable to any small heritage institution with limited staff and budget. The examples here are for an imaginary museum, the Staveley Historical Museum, with a director, part-time registrar, and various volunteers who write labels, blog, register objects, host school groups, and give tours.

Mission statement

A museum needs to have a clear mission statement that includes a responsibility to make its collections as accessible as possible to its stakeholders. In many cases the stakeholders will be the owners of the collection (likely the community) and those who fund it (national funding bodies or regional government). If collections have already been paid for by the public, they should be made public and usable for whatever purpose the stakeholders desire. The museum’s job is to safeguard the physical objects, not the images and information.


It is vital the museum has a web presence. Most stakeholders and interested parties will not be able to physically visit a regional museum. The constituency of even a small museum is global. Even a single web page is sufficient to outline the museum’s history, holdings, copyright policy, and of course location and contact information.

The best solution for a small museum is a hosting service such as, which costs $220–$300 per year, and often offers email and domain name services as part of a bundle. It’s also possible to use a cheaper web host and install a free website service like, but this requires more IT skill. Whatever solution is chosen, the site should be easily editable, with staff and volunteers able to be assigned logins and editing privileges over different sections as needed.


The museum needs to register a domain name such as A .com or extension implies the museum is a business; a .org might be more appropriate, but .nz domains are best. Domain name registration is about $40/year if not covered by a hosting service.


Professional organisations need multiple email addresses; at least and Email addresses are often offered as part of a hosting bundle, and can redirect to other addresses such as gmail. It’s important that email is archived and available to future staffers, and thus that professional and personal email accounts are kept separate.

Copyright policy

In a nutshell, under New Zealand copyright law any creative work is copyrighted for 50 years after the death of its creator. Anyone who commissions a creative work owns its copyright, unless other arrangements were made. With a few exceptions, there is no “fair use” provision in NZ law: anyone wanting to use a copyrighted work for any purpose needs to get permission. A variety of Creative Commons licenses offer an alternative to this all-rights-reserved copyright, allowing a copyright holder to make works freely available on a “pre-approved” basis under certain conditions (such as always giving credit when they’re used).

The ability to share and use works in the collection, especially photographs, is a critical part of a museum’s mission, so everybody involved, from the entire board who set policy to the front of house staff who deal with visitor photography. The museum should have clear copyright policies, stated on their website for a) works they’ve created and b) works in the collection.

If a museum is publicly-funded, graphics and photographs (which I’m calling “works”) that it creates should be made available under a free open license, such as Creative Commons Attribution, for anyone to use for any purpose. The public have paid for these works, so they should be allowed to have them. Having a collection of images of the museum and its people freely available online also makes it as easy as possible for media and visitors to talk about and share the museum experience.

Works in the collection will fall into three basic categories.

  1. Works with “no known copyright” (the NZ equivalent of “public domain”): mostly photographs taken pre-1944, or where the created died more than 50 years ago. These are no longer copyrighted to anyone, certainly not the museum. The museum cannot license them under any conditions, because you have to own a copyright to license something. Just scanning a photograph does not create a new copyrighted work – although this hasn’t been tested under NZ law, it’s the assumption the large heritage organisations here make. Therefore works in this category should be made available freely under a “no known copyright” license, which in Creative Commons terms is CC0 or public domain. Anyone can use them for any purpose. The museum can indicate they would like to be credited as the source of course.
  2. Works where the museum was given the copyright as well as the work. This is uncommon, as both museums and donors often don’t realise that giving someone a physical copy of a work, such as a print or negatives, is not the same as signing over the copyright. If possible, talk through these conditions with donors, pointing out that if copyright is not assigned the museum will have to negotiate with representatives of the donor for the next 50 years or more every time a photo is used. One of the requirements of a collection being given to a publicly-funded institution to preserve in perpetuity is that the public have access to and use of collection images, so these works should be released under an open licence, such as CC Attribution or CC Attribution Share-Alike. (If donors are not happy with this, they’re of course welcome to set up and staff a private museum to look after their image collection!)
  3. Works that are still in copyright. The problem here is that often the copyright holder is unclear. Copyrights usually pass to the beneficiary of a will when the copyright holder dies, or are purchased along with other assets when a business goes bankrupt. For the next 50 years, someone still has to approve use of those images, but it can be almost impossible to know who. The museum needs to do its best to track down copyright holders, and ideally arrange a copyright donation, but if this attempt is fruitless the works are considered “orphaned”. It is perfectly possible for a museum to share and use orphaned works with a clear statement that the copyright holder is unknown and they welcome information on who it might be; if the owner come forward, they can negotiate licensing terms or donation, but this will be quite rare, and in the meantime the work will be available to the public. A good copyright policy for a museum is “open by default”: all its works will be made as freely available as possible, and the museum credited where possible, unless other conditions apply. For example, the copyright might belong to someone else, the donor imposed conditions of access, or the photos might be culturally sensitive and require permission from the relevant iwi or whanau.

Collections online

A small museum with an “open by default” policy has a responsibility to make images of its collections available online to its stakeholders, and it’s wise to post as much information online as possible to cater for potential visitors or interested parties in NZ and overseas. There is a common misconception that collections online deter visitors. The opposite is true: people will come to see a real object that they’ve only seen pictures of online, and widely-distributed collection images will attract visitors who might never have known of the museum’s existence.

Collection photographs should be as high a quality as possible, and usable in print, websites, education, and the media. Scale bars and colour swatches should be kept to one side, to be cropped out as required. Backgrounds should be white or light-coloured, and smooth and even in tone. Lighting should be excellent: cheap LED lights are easily available on Ali Express, as are backdrops, diffusion boxes (sold for photographing jewellery), tripods, and camera remotes. A DSLR camera with good depth of field is ideal, but even high-end compact cameras can give excellent results if set to a small aperture with long exposure times, good lighting, and a remote shutter. Decent camera equipment and in training for staff and volunteers is money well spent.

There are several tools available to make online galleries of collections. When these are being chosen, the following criteria are important:

  1. Cost: The service should ideally be free. Time spent manually creating records is also a cost.
  2. Licensing: It should be possible to state a default open licence such as CC-BY, and adjust the licence for public domain or photos used with permission. The service should never add its own license to the work.
  3. Downloads: Downloading images at a number of different resolutions should be easy.
  4. Integration with collection management system: When a new object is photographed and registered, it should automatically be available online if its record shows a compatible license.
  5. Unlimited number of objects displayable.
  6. Easily-tailored fields that display appropriate collection information equally well for pinned insects and farm machinery.


Wikimedia Commons is the free, openly-licensed image library that supports Wikipedia pages. It’s also an excellent tool for sharing image collections online, used by museums large and small. It meets five of the six criteria above, but does not automatically integrate with a CMS; image uploads can be performed in bulk by exporting collection records as a spreadsheet and using an upload tool like Pattypan.

The great advantage of Commons is discoverability. Not only can images used on Wikipedia pages, they’ll be preferentially indexed in Google image searches and in the previews that accompany most standard Google searches.

One thing to note: Commons is hosted in the USA, so uses US rather than NZ copyright law. The main differences are that in the US copyright lasts for 70 years after death, not 50, and that images from 1923 or before are in the public domain. This means a museum might own a photo taken in 1933 that’s not copyrighted in NZ, but still in copyright overseas. If the museum owned that copyright, it could release it into Commons under an open license; if someone else did, and it was less that 70 years after their death, the museum would have to organise a copyright release, or just skip the image.


It makes a lot of sense for a small museum to be engaging with Wikipedia and creating or improving articles. Wikipedia is a hugely influential image source – the fifth-most-visited website and near the top of most Google searches. Any can edit a Wikipedia article, and the sheer number of collaborating volunteer editors keeps articles quite accurate and speeds up fact-checking and error-correction.

Rather than adding basic factual information to the museum’s own website, staff should be improving the Wikipedia coverage instead, and adding the museum’s historical photos and collection images via Wikimedia Commons. Any work done here is a far better time investment, and will reach vastly more people; a good Wikipedia article can be read by 1000 or more people a day, far more than might visit the museum in person or read its publications.

Good articles for Staveley Museum to improve would be Staveley, New Zealand, other regional settlements like Mount Somers, Springburn, and Ruapuna, the historic building Ross Cottage, historic photos for the lime kilns article, and fossil species from the local limestone. One thing the museum could not do is create or improve an article about itself – that has to be left to other editors because of conflict of interest rules.

Wikidata, Wikisource

These are also projects relevant to small museums but will be dealt with in future posts.

Why engage with Wikipedia?

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

I’m currently a Wikipedian in Residence at Auckland Museum, and have spent the last few weeks explaining to people why museums and other heritage organisations in New Zealand need to take Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons seriously.


Part of every museum’s mission is to maximise audience access to its information and share its collections with its community. (There’s nothing in most museum mission statements about driving traffic to the website!) So a museum should be looking at the most effective, efficient means to do that, whether it’s on their own website or someone else’s.


Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited website in the world. Popular articles will get thousands or tens of thousands of unique readers a day. Wikipedia exists in nearly 300 languages and is a major information source for anyone visiting NZ, even tourists from Iceland. Its content is used by Google and Siri and AI projects; edits appear in Google search results in a few minutes.

It dwarfs every museum’s web presence. (Plus it’s far easier to find information on Wikipedia than most museum websites.) So there’s a powerful incentive for a museum to engage. But for the carrot there’s a stick: if an institution ignores Wikipedia, other institutions won’t, and their information and collections will become the iconic images representing New Zealand worldwide.


Improving Wikipedia is very cheap; it’s far more cost-effective than a museum writing its own content from scratch, in terms of impact per hour of staff time, and much of the heavy lifting will be done by volunteers, for free. The hosting costs are zero and mistakes can be corrected instantly. The content is regularly improved, corrected, and updated, and has a far greater life expectancy than a museum’s own web content, some of which is deleted after just a few years (or the institution has a website makeover and breaks all its URLs, which is much the same thing). Wikipedia has been around for 17 years, and its content is durable, backed up, and is shared and duplicated widely.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Wikipedia content is freely available under an open license to be repurposed and used in a museum’s Collections Online database, as links from its website, and in-gallery digital content – no need to reinvent the wheel.

So there’s a good case for diverting some of the writing and web content effort already going on into Wikipedia, either directly or by supporting a group of community volunteer editors. The institution can recruit people to happily share its stories and images, who – I’ll mention it again – will do all this work for free.


Wikipedia’s articles top Google rankings, and their text is shown as a preview on Google searches. So Wikipedia is where museum audiences are getting their information: to ignore Wikipedia is to ignore them. A museum’s audience is global, and this is a great way to engage with them: volunteers from all over the world are keen to help if you meet them halfway, by making authoritative information openly available able to be referenced.

Citing its publications and research in Wikipedia allows the museum to connect with specialists and researchers, and by working with Wikimedia projects a museum moves from being a one-way authority feeding out knowledge to engaging with multiple audiences and building new relationships.

Brand of trustworthy authority

Content in Wikipedia is trusted; a museum having its images and research prominently displayed there likewise makes it a trusted source of knowledge. Museums are used to having that respect and authority automatically, so realising that things have changed can take some getting used to.

Wikipedia is global. By engaging with it a New Zealand museum can overcome geography and position itself as an organisation of international importance, part of a global network of open knowledge institutions.

Website and collections online visibility

Blosyropus spinosus, Auckland Museum AMNZ49737, CC-BY 4.0

A museum should get its images into Wikipedia. If captions are written correctly, images can link to the museum’s Wikipedia page, which includes a website link; and anyone clicking though to the image in Commons can go directly to the Collections Online record. Although this isn’t the goal, it will increase website traffic, which will keep the people who care about that sort of thing happy.

Wikipedia images will be shared and reused, because they have to be released under an open license, usually Creative Commons with the Attribution proviso (CC BY). The “BY” means the museum will be credited every time the image is used. Encouraging widespread free use of the museum’s images and content, most effectively via Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, increases the museum’s visibility and creates enthusiastic brand ambassadors. It’s true: there are editors like Ambrosia10 who tirelessly promote Auckland Museum because of its generosity in using a CC BY license.

Openness as a strategy

The objections to CC BY licenses tend to come from institutions who’ve historically charged for people to reproduce their images.

First, it’s important to note that this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Using Wikimedia Commons allows museums plenty of control: they can release lower resolution images for sharing, clearly state what people can and can’t do with them, and give the exact wording, including a link, to use when crediting the institution.

Collecting box to raise money for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Auckland Museum 1965.78.863, CC BY 4.0

Also, locking away collections costs. Charging for access to content often doesn’t make much money when the administration costs are subtracted. An institution that wants to restrict the reuse of its images has to be prepared to hound copyright violators, or its terms and conditions are a joke. Threatening letters from its lawyers is both expensive and not a particularly good look for a publicly-funded institution.

The hidden, and often forgotten, cost of closed content is turning away the community who just want to use the collections. The collections they own and pay the museum to look after. Museums have a bad record of copyfraud: taking publicly-owned out-of-copyright resources, slapping a copyright symbol on them, and selling the result back to the community as a postcard or book.

Open CC0 or CC BY collection access is the way institutions are going worldwide: the Reichsmuseum, the Met overseas, Auckland Museum and Landcare in New Zealand.


Some institutions see a Wikipedian as a someone to help the marketing department fix the institution’s Wiki page. But that’s not really taking Wikipedia seriously. Wikipedia, not its website, is the face of a museum. But it’s also the way people can find its collections, and benefit from its expertise. In New Zealand, museums are well behind in taking advantage of this, and over the next year I hope I can help some of them catch up.

New Zealand Wikipedian-at-Large

I’m excited to announce that from the end of June I’m on a one-year contract, funded by the Wikimedia Foundation in the USA, to be Aotearoa’s first ever Wikipedian-at-large. Who? What? Read on.

Who and What

The Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit based in San Francisco that runs Wikipedia, as well as Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, and a handful of other projects. They don’t write or edit Wikipedia: that’s all done by hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Their job is to run the servers, fundraise, and administer outreach programmes and community grants worldwide. This funding round they gave out US$355,473 to 11 successful grant proposals, one of which was me. It’ll cover my salary and travel and some conference fees for the year while I’m a Wikipedian-in-residence at institutions all over New Zealand.

Me helping beginning Wikipedians at the NZ Insect Cards workshop last year. Pic: Lanipai CC BY-SA

A Wikipedian-in-residence is based in an institution or organisation for a fixed term, and their job is not to just sit and edit Wikipedia. Again, that’s done by volunteers. The Wikipedian trains staff about editing, copyright, and how to make collections more freely-usable. They run public events, like Wikipedia workshops and edit-a-thons. And they help the organisation develop a Wikipedia strategy, figuring out how to engage with this amazing resource—because after all Wikipedia is the first place most people go for information, and if your institution’s mission is to communicate you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist.

New Zealand currently doesn’t have a strong community of Wikipedia volunteers, and the coverage of New Zealand topics in Wikipedia is a bit dire. We’ve fallen behind. Another part of my job description is working out how to boost the number of editors, by organising regular editor meetups, running training sessions, and encouraging institutions to support the editing groups in their community. The Wikimedia Foundation is especially keen to recruit from under-represented groups, such as women and Māori, to help counter some of Wikipedia’s biases.

Where and When

Lots of institutions are keen to have me as a Wikipedian-in-residence, so I’ll be travelling all over New Zealand for a year (that’s the “at-large” part). I’ve enjoyed the last four and half years at Whanganui Regional Museum, but it’s time to move on. The timetable for the next year has to be negotiated between all the interested parties, but at this stage it might be:

  • June–August: Auckland, based at New Zealand Geographic magazine, Auckland Museum, and Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua
  • August–September: Dunedin, to give a talk at the SPNHC conference and work at Otago Museum
  • October–March: Wellington, in residence at Zealandia, the National Library, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, DOC, and Forest & Bird
  • I’ll also be working with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition in Christchurch, the Nelson Provincial Museum, and other organisations as time and funding permits.

For more information, see the news story by Farah Hancock back when I first applied for the grant, and the detailed Project Page, which has timelines, reports, details on upcoming activities and so on. I’ll be blogging the highlights of each month here, filed under Wikipediana. You can also join the Facebook group Wikipedia New Zealand to keep up with the news, or subscribe to the Wikipedian-at-large mailing list, so you can hear about what events I’ll be running in your area.

How you can help

Are you part of an institution that might be interested in hosting me as a Wikipedian-in-residence? Would you like me to come and give a talk on Wikipedia to your colleagues or run a workshop? Get in touch and we can find a space in the calendar.

I’ll be putting my possessions in a storage locker and being a digital hobo for a year all over New Zealand. Do you know of any house-sits, writer’s residencies, spare rooms, sublets, visiting-scholar accommodation, or DOC huts in need of a warden in your area? All suggestions and offers gratefully received, as long as they have wifi.

Are you just interested in Wikipedia and want to volunteer to help? We have a good team of volunteers and can always use more.

The Whip Scorpions of Bali

I’ve done field work in lots of places, but this was the first time I’d had to wear a purple sash.

The sash and sarong were hired for 5,000 rupiah (about 50c) from a shop by the main road on the island of Nusa Penida, near Bali, Indonesia. I was about to venture into a cave to look for endangered crabs, but because the cave is also a popular Hindu temple I needed to be properly attired.

At one point the Giri Putri temple would have just been a smallish hole partway up a cliff face; you have to crouch, clamber, and shuffle to enter, before the ceiling rises and you’re in one of several roomy caves. Today, there are steps, buildings, white-clad priests praying, and a visitor’s book for you to sign and donate about Rp 20,000; I was a bit more generous. Giri Putri has been a holy place for a long time, but it’s only recently we realised it was a biodiversity hotspot as well.

Giri Putri crab. Photo by the late Tony Whitten.

Back in 1993 Australian biologist Tony Whitten ventured into the cave when it was just a hole in the hillside. He was struck by the number of crabs scuttling about on the cave floor, and collected a few. They turned out to belong to not one but two new species, Karstarma emdi and K. balicum. Freshwater crabs like these can be found in several cave systems in south-east Asia: they have long legs for feeling their way about in total darkness. Isolation and time leads to speciation, and the two Karstarma species in Giri Putri seem to be found nowhere else but this one small cave system on this single island.

Unfortunately, they’re under threat. Giri Putri is now a busy temple, with artificial lighting everywhere, large fans to keep the air moving, lots of concreted and tiled floor, and benches and altars set up in several places. Whitten noted that every few years when he visited there were fewer crabs to be seen. In the hour I spent searching with a headlamp in the dark corners of the cave I didn’t see any at all. I asked one priest if the crabs were there; he told me “sometimes”. The IUCN is pushing for better monitoring of the crab population, and the temple authorities seem keen to work to minimise human impact, so let’s hope. But really there needs to be a resident biologist there studying the cave environment and ecology to come up with a management plan.

There’s plenty of other life in Giri Putri, though. In all the dark corners I was disturbing bats which zipped through my torch beam in silence, sometimes an inch from my face. I was very conscious that I hadn’t gotten a rabies vaccination before coming to Bali; killed by a rabid bat is not my preferred demise. The walls of the cave were crawling with invertebrates: large Periplaneta cockroaches, camel crickets that looked just like the cave wētā back in New Zealand, and good-sized tailless whip scorpions. I took photos as best I could with my phone.

Back home, I uploaded the photos to NatureWatch and tried to get IDs. I sent the whip scorpion photos to Mark Harvey at the Western Australian Museum to see what he thought. Mark placed them in the family Phrynidae, probably the genus Phrynus. This was interesting, because almost all species of Phrynus are found in the New World, through Mexico and Central America. The sole exception is a species Mark himself named and described: Phrynus exsul from the island of Flores, Indonesia, thousands of kilometres away from its closest relatives.

Only one problem: Bali is 400 km away from Flores. So either these beasties are Phrynus exsul and a new record far to the west of where they were first observed, or they’re an undescribed species of Phrynus, only the second known from outside the neotropics. A bit of quick searching reveals there are similar-looking whip scorpions at nearby Kentung Cave and probably other caves on Penida. Who can say how many species, and whether they’re endemic or endangered?

Whip scorpions are not especially inconspicuous. Giri Putri is right by the main road, and a popular tourist destination. Nusa Penida is a short ferry ride from Bali, which has millions of tourists a year. And it it seems that in over 20 years nobody has thought to collect one of these critters, take it to an expert, and find out if it’s an undescribed species or not. This is the plight of the tropics writ small: stuffed full of biodiversity, which is disappearing faster than we can discover and put a name to it.

Wikipedia as an Entomology Outreach Tool

(Notes for a presentation I gave at the 2018 Entomological Society of New Zealand conference in Whanganui.)

It all started when I wrote a piece for the local paper in 2015 on conservation funding for threatened species, lamenting how all the money goes to charismatic birds and not much to ugly insects and endangered leeches. Jesse Mulligan interviewed me on the radio, and wanted to know what he could do to help spotlight our more obscure threatened species, and Critter of the Week was born, a regular interview with DOC’s endangered species ambassador Nicola Toki. It’s been a great success, covering 120 critters to date – many of them insects, snails, fishes, shrubs, and other overlooked organisms.

My role has been behind the scenes, wearing my Wikipedian hat. Every week, when the critter is announced, I check to see if it has a good Wikipedia page – or indeed any page at all. With the help of other volunteer editors, I work on improving the article and adding photos. We maintain a list of all the species covered, with notes on which still need work. You can see the effect of the project by comparing the article for the New Zealand giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) before and after. Sadly, despite all this, Jesse Mulligan still calls me a Wikinerd. Sigh.

Critter of the Week is an example of how Wikipedia can be part of your science communication toolbox. Wikipedia is where people are getting their information, and anyone can edit it. it’s easy and quick to update it and correct mistakes or vandalism. There’s a whole spectrum of ways that scientists can work with Wikipedia and take advantage of its reach and impact.

  1. Lend your expertise, even indirectly on a Talk page. Every article has a Talk tab, and anyone can leave comments there, even if they don’t consider themselves a Wikipedia editor. Weevil researcher Chrissie Painting for example left some great suggestions on the giraffe weevil Talk page, noting inaccuracies and possible references for more information.
  2. Publish in open-access journals or make PDFs available in a repository. Everything in Wikipedia needs to be referenced, and so often when I’m trying to track down sources for an article I hit a paywall. It’s wonderful to find a repository or publications page that posts PDFs, even if it’s since been taken down and exists only in the Internet Archive. Open-access publications are 47% more likely to be referenced in Wikipedia.
  3. Lasiorhynchus barbicornis male and female
    Lasiorhynchus_barbicornis by Christina. J. Painting, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  4. Donate images to Commons, and use Creative Commons licenses (not NC). That giraffe weevil illustration was taken from an open-access paper in PLoS, and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a repository for freely-usable images. This was possible because it was published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC-BY). Creative Commons, invented in 2001, is a great alternative to All Rights Reserved copyright if you want people to be able to freely use your work – here’s a book (released under a CC license!) if you want know more. There are hundreds of Wikipedia articles on New Zealand moths (like this one) because Landcare Research made its photo collection available under a CC-BY license. Some institutions don’t. Adding a “non-commercial” condition (CC-BY-NC) is too restrictive: Wikipedia is published under an open license so its content has to be usable by anyone for anything. Almost none of the thousands and thousands of photos in NatureWatch NZ for example can be used in Wikipedia, because NatureWatch’s default setting when you create an account is CC-BY-NC, and most users would never think to change it.
  5. The New Zealand Insect Cards edit-a-thon, banner by Emma Scheltema and photo by Leilani Walker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  6. Help your local editors. Wikipedia editors are all volunteers, often toiling anonymously. It’s nice to reach out, for example via the Wikiproject New Zealand noticeboard. You can offer to host an edit-a-thon, like the University of Auckland did. You could give editors freebies, like behind-the-scenes tours of your insect collections or the opportunity to help with a research project. And you can give them access to your expertise and your institutional library. Let them know their hard work is appreciated.
  7. Develop an institutional Wikipedia strategy, like you would for any other public comms or outreach. Effort put into Wikipedia pays off. This pūriri moth article, for example, is not very good, but it uses Landcare Research photos, and those photos are getting (as of April 2018) 560 unique views a month. Popular or timely Wikipedia articles (like “Kiwi”) can get thousands of views a day, far greater impact than newspaper stories or magazine articles. To help develop this strategy, you can host a Wikipedian in Residence, a short-term paid or volunteer position where an experienced editor teaches staff about Wikipedia, helps you move images to the Commons, and runs edit-a-thons and other events.
  8. And you can just edit Wikipedia yourself. Your advantage is you’re a subject expert, with all the literature at your fingertips. You still need to reference every sentence, as if you were writing a student essay – your authority doesn’t count here, and you can’t base an article on unpublished research. Like any other written medium, it has its own style and codes, so it’s worthwhile getting experience with small corrections and adding citations before you launch into new articles. Luckily there’s plenty on guidance and information available, in Wikipedia’s help pages, and even from other researchers. There are plenty of Wikipedians delighted to help a new editor: let them troubleshoot for you. Ask me if you get stuck.

If you want to get your research out there, and communicate with the largest number of people in the most efficient way, Wikipedia is a good tool to use. Institutions seem very keen to create information silos that proudly display their brand identity, but keeping these up to date can become a huge time suck, and they often just stagnate and die. Working with a community of editors and putting your effort into open resources is far more rewarding. Wikipedia is where people are already going, and you may as well meet them there.

Hunting Insects in Suburban Paraparaumu

I was asked to conduct an insect survey of Kaitawa Reserve, Paraparaumu, by Forest and Bird Kapiti branch. The purpose was to photograph an interesting selection of insect life that could be featured on interpretive boards, to accompany billboards already being designed for the birds and fishes of the reserve. I think it’s great when conservation groups take insect biodiversity seriously, so I was happy to help.

I also put out word on Twitter that I was doing the insect survey and invited people on the Kapiti Coast to come join in. There was plenty of interest, and in the end one couple came for the evening and again the next day, along with one more person and a family with two small kids. All the adults said they had a great time, and the kids got to play in the stream and chase butterflies and look at eels, so it was fun all around.


Kaitawa reserve is 7 Ha, a mixture of remnant coastal wetland forest and revegetation that volunteers have been adding to since 1996. It contains tōtara, rimu, kahikatea, puriri, kohekohe, titoki, tawa, hinau, rewarewa, kowhai, swamp maire, and turepo.

What We Did

Saturday Feb 3
8:30 pm – midnight: Light trapping
I set up a LepiLED UV light trap to attract moths and beetles in sheltered open area near the playground. The night was calm, warm, and a bit humid, excellent conditions for attracting insects. I was a bit concerned because there was almost no cloud and we were close to a full moon, but in the end it didn’t rise until shortly before we called it quits for the night.

The white sheet was quickly covered with caddisflies – unsurprising, as we weren’t far from a stream. I was hoping for dobsonflies, but no luck (although we did find a dobsonfly larva in the stream the next day). There were plenty of porina moths, loopers, and pug moths, and some orange Netelia wasps, which are caterpillar parasites. Reasonable diversity, though it would have been nice to see more beetles – such as huhu and other longhorns – and a wider variety of moths.

Richard Hall’s How to Gaze at the Southern Stars is evangelical about the value of stargazing just through binoculars, something I’d never tried. And it was extraordinary. The Pleiades resolve from a smudge to distinct stars, and you can see the shadows of the edges of the moon’s craters.

Sunday Feb 4
08:30 am – 3:00 pm: Insect hunting

  • Sweep netting in long grass
  • Beating vegetation with stick and beating sheet to dislodge insects
  • Hunting flying insects with butterfly nets
  • Looking under logs and stones
  • Completely disassembling rotten logs with the trusty butter knife
  • Searching the stream for aquatic larvae
  • Emptying pitfall traps I set two weeks ago

The next morning was fine and sunny, and straight after breakfast the reserve was alive with butterflies: yellow admiral, monarchs, cabbage whites, and common blues (no coppers or red admirals). Cicadas were calling, and tūī and kererū flapped noisily overhead. My volunteers ran to and fro chasing tiger beetles with butterfly nets, or thrashing bushes with a stick to see what was dislodged (the expected stick insects duly appeared).

I happened to have some fish nets, so we checked out the stream and almost immediately caught two small longfin eels and a school of īnanga. When we put them in an enamel pan to look at, a local family who’d been using the playground could contain their curiosity no longer and came over to ask questions. We ended up having a great conversation about biodiversity, fresh water, eel breeding, and the importance of reserves like this.

By mid-afternoon, we were fairly exhausted, but had managed to find enough colourful and obscure insects and spiders to fill an interpretation panel. Next time I run a survey like this, it should be something like a miniature BioBlitz, with a call for public participation: having multiple searchers was tremendously helpful, and locals would be fascinated to learn what was living in their backyard.

Box of pinned insects: butterflies, moths, beetles, a praying mantis

Insects collected at Kaitawa Reserve, Paraparaumu, 3–4 Feb 2018

After much work processing, pinning, setting, and photographing with the help of visiting Earlham College students Anna Carlson and Julia Freeman, here are all the specimens collected that day. Some still have to be identified to species level, but I was able to give Forest and Bird Kapiti a list of everything we saw, and it will all be accessioned to the Whanganui Regional Museum collection. From there it will go on NatureWatch NZ, and thence into GBIF so the data will be available globally. We’ll also be putting some of the insects on display as part of the Children of Tane section of the Museum’s revamped exhibitions. Waste not want not!

One Hundred Days

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
— Chuck Close

Last year, and in 2014, I signed up for the 100 Days Project. This is simply an agreement you make with yourself to perform one creative act every day for 100 days in a row, no stopping. Signing up with the project website allows you to post a public gallery of every day’s achievement, which is a critical part of keeping you going. It’s very, very hard.

The project was started by Auckland graphic designer Emma Rogan in 2011. She was inspired by a class taught by designer Michael Bierut, called “100 Days of Design”. Bierut realised that most creative work consisted of just showing up: doing something, no matter how small, every day until a habit forms. Creativity is not about waiting for the muse to strike, it’s about doing something whether you feel inspired or not.

Since 2011 the 100 Days Project has grown to thousands of participants all over the world. Many people sign up with grand intentions: paint a landscape every day; write a sonnet! But the graveyard of abandoned projects attest that most of these ambitions last for a couple of weeks, then peter out. Both times in the past I’ve resolved to just draw something every day, and that’s been hard enough – on several occasions I had only five minutes to make a quick sketch of my lunch or something on my desk. And several days I just couldn’t get anything done, which leaves a big embarrassing numbered space in your gallery. Last year I managed over 90% of the days; this year I’ll be trying for all 100. (Update, May 2017: I did not go the distance! Maybe next year.)

If you’re interested in kickstarting your creativity and exercising your commitment muscles, I’d recommend giving it a try. Let me know how you go in the comments.

Reading List for 2017

Here we go again. I console myself with the fact that a) I do read more each year when I make these lists, and b) I do actually read some of these books. It’s a selection from Year’s Best compilations, unread books from previous lists of mine, suggestions of friends, and ideas from Andy Miller’s excellent The Year of Reading Dangerously.

  • Don DeLillo | Zero K
  • Iris Murdoch | The Sea, The Sea
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Oliver Ready transl.) | Crime and Punishment
  • Dave Eggers | What is the What
  • Dave Eggers | Heroes of the Frontier
  • Rebecca Solnit | Hope in the Dark
  • Dexter Palmer | Version Control
  • China Miéville | The Census-Taker
  • Alexander Weinstein | Children Of The New World
  • Brian Evenson | A Collapse Of Horses: A Collection Of Stories
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee | The Gene: An Intimate History
  • Han Kang | The Vegetarian: A Novel
  • Ann Patchett | Commonwealth
  • Stephen Asma | Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads
  • Shaun Hendy | Silencing Science
  • Philip Larkin | Collected Poems
  • Michael King | Moriori: a People Rediscovered
  • Breece D’J Pancake | The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake  
  • Mikhail Bulgakov | The Master and Margarita
  • Joris-Karl Huysmans | Against Nature
  • Isabel Allende | Zorro
  • Arthur Golden | Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Hannah Arendt | Origins of Totalitarianism

2016 Reading

Last year I managed to read fewer books than the year before, due of course to the Four Horsemen of the Bookopalypse (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and downloadable TV). Some were great, some not so much.

Of the science books I finished, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl stood out. Stunning writing about plant biology interspersed with memoirs of a career in science. A book I’d like to give to all the young women I know starting on a research career; both inspiring and sobering. Resurrection Science by M. R. O’Connor is an up-to-date overview of current conservation debates: Why should we save endangered species? Are resurrected species the same or different? To what extent are humans managing nature and steering evolution? George Monbiot’s Feral, in the same vein, was an interesting meditation on rewilding and recreating vanished ecosystems, but too concerned with creating wilderness in that least wild of areas, Wales. Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, a cultural study of British and US taxidermy, the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, Victorian fads, kitsch, and Damien Hirst, had, unforgivably, no photos.

Danyl McLauchlan has created an entire genre of Dan-Brown-esque Wellington Absurdist Noir in just two books: Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley and Mysterious Mysteries of ditto: great rollicking reads, deflating themselves at regular intervals, although I enjoyed the first more. They’re especially poignant for anyone with the misfortune to have lived in damp depressing Devon St, as I once did. I once even excavated an Aro Valley backyard in much the same way as black-robed cultists do in Unspeakable Secrets, but found only bits of broken bottle.

Steve Braunias’s How to Watch a Bird captures the pull of birdwatching as an outsider immersing himself in that world for a year. It includes a great interview with grand old man of New Zealand ornithology Graham Turbott, and a cameo by Major Wilson of Bulls (whose egg collection I recently inventoried). The other natural history book I adored was Dave Hansford’s Protecting Paradise, an important overview of the 1080 debate that doesn’t satisfy itself with just stating the science but delves into the psyche of hard line 1080-haters and examines their motivations. Very relevant in this era of alternative facts.

This year I took part in the 100 Days project, trying to draw something every one of those days. My guide for this was the inspirational Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws, a simply superb tutorial book. Also a fine teacher is Lynda Barry, in whose amazing Syllabus we see a class of non-drawers learning to write, observe, and depict themselves and their lives through exercises, movies, diaries, and non-destructive feedback. It’s epitomised by Barry’s rule about candy in the classroom: the students can have as much free candy as they want, but they have it draw it first.

My favourite book of 2016 was by my friend Ashleigh Young. In Can You Tolerate This? she created a Wunderkammer of essays, all connected by invisible threads, all in her distinctive thoughtful voice. Whether it’s growing up in Te Kuiti or skeletal deformity it’s a pleasure to be in her company and see the world with fresh eyes. Recommended.

The disappointments of the year included Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats (mostly forgettable New Yorkerish amusements), Bruce Sterling’s Visionary in Residence (one of my favourite SF writers but not a good collection), and re-reading Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, not as impressive as recall it being 20 years ago.

So in 2016 I managed only 19 books, (out of interest, six by women). That compares to 28 the year before, just 18 in 2014, and 30 in 2013. The last time I made a serious effort to read more, blogging each month, was in 2012 when I finished 73 books (discussed in crushing detail in the rest of the category Bookishness). I think making reading lists is how I fight to delay Bücherdämmerung.

Recommended Reading

Instead of a bio I used to have this following carefully-curated list of books on my About page, in line with the philosophy that a person’s true nature is revealed by their bookshelf. Now I just think they’re good books.

  • Possession • A. S. Byatt
  • Atonement • Ian McEwan
  • Distraction • Bruce Sterling
  • Master and Commander &c. • Patrick O’Brian
  • How Buildings Learn • Stewart Brand
  • A Pattern Language • Christopher Alexander et al.
  • Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions • John Michell
  • The Empty Space • Peter Brook
  • Last Letters from Hav • Jan Morris
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything • Bill Bryson
  • Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable • Ebenezer Brewer (et al.)
  • On Food and Cooking • Harold McGee
  • Little, Big • John Crowley
  • Classic Italian Cooking • Marcella Hazan
  • Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type • Geoffrey Dowding
  • Real World Scanning and Halftones • David Blatner &c.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style • Robert Bringhurst
  • The History Man • Malcolm Bradbury
  • Catch-22 • Joseph Heller
  • Trees for the New Zealand Countryside • John & Bunny Mortimer

Pigeon Spotting

Years ago, I was at an ecology conference where scientists were sharing the results of a study on our native pigeon or kererū. They’d been tracking the long-term decline of kererū in native forests; some of the birds they’d been monitoring had been killed by predators during the study; others had been poached by hunters. Their conclusion was that kererū were in trouble.

Kererū, kūkū, or kūkupa are known to scientists as *Hemiphaga novaezelandiae*, the “New Zealand half-eater”, for the way they gobble up fruit and poo out the undigested seeds.

Kererū, kūkū, or kūkupa are known to scientists as Hemiphaga novaezelandiae, the “New Zealand half-eater”, for the way they gobble up fruit and poo out the undigested seeds. Photo: CC-BY-SA, Angrysunbird/Flickr

Someone in the audience stood up: a local. How could these scientists say that kererū were in decline, he asked. Why, just the other day he’d seen a flock of twenty five!

To the local, the evidence of his own eyes counted for more than years of research by scientists. But our own observations can be misleading. We tend to remember the day we saw twenty five kererū, and forget all the days we saw none at all. Also, our memories don’t stretch back very far. A few generations ago, flocks of dozens or even hundreds of kererū were not uncommon; today they’re very rare.

It matters if kererū are less common than they used to be. Our native pigeons play a vital role in the forest’s ecology: they’re the only bird species left with a big enough mouth to swallow the fruit of native trees like karaka, tawa, and matai. These trees have evolved to have their fruit eaten by birds, and the seeds passed out the other end some distance away. Now that larger birds like moa are extinct, we rely on kererū to help native forest regenerate.

The 2015 Great Kererū Count results, reflecting the distribution of observers as much as pigeons. From:

The 2015 Great Kererū Count results, reflecting the distribution of observers as much as pigeons. From:

One way to find out where kererū are – and aren’t – is the Great Kererū Count, a citizen science project that enlists members of the public to look for kererū locally and note down whether they’re regularly seen there. It runs September 16th to 25th. To take part, you just need to make an observation for 5 to 30 minutes, which could be in your backyard or walking in the park. You note down how many kererū you see, or if you saw none (equally important data) and enter the results at the Great Kereru Count site. You can add what the birds were doing or eating, and how common is is to see kererū in your area. You can even download an app to help count kererū on the go, or join up with the Great Kererū Count project at NatureWatch NZ.

Enlisting thousands of volunteers means kererū numbers are no longer just one person’s opinion. Last year there were over 8,700 observations, and over 19,000 kererū counted. It’s not the absolute numbers that matter, but the trends over time. As the data accumulate over the years, ecologists will be able to build up a picture of regional trends in kererū population: where numbers are healthy, and where the birds are in trouble. Most participants are in cities, so observers from out in the country are especially valuable. Looking at the map from last year, there are very few observations between Kai Iwi and Hawera, so I’ve been asking people around Whanganui to consider volunteering for half an hour and keeping their eyes peeled for kererū.

(This post appeared in the Whanganui Chronicle, 10 September 2016)

Slowly Saving the Longfin Eel

New Zealand has two species of native freshwater eel, longfins and shortfins. Longfins are found nowhere else. They live further inland than shortfins, and get older and bigger: over a century old, for ones that are 2 m long and as thick as your leg. They’re down to about 20% of their former numbers, and the population has been declining for decades from overfishing, pollution, and forest clearance. If it drops any more, DOC will have to declare them an endangered species.

800px-NZ_eelEvery longfin eel in NZ is a virgin. At the end of their lives, some time between 30 and 100 years old, they head out to sea, spawn in the ocean near Tonga, and die. The tiny fry make their way back to NZ and work their way up rivers as elvers, where they settle down and slowly grow bigger. So every eel we catch is one that has yet to breed.

And yet, amazingly, there’s a commercial export industry in longfin eels. It’s perfectly legal to catch tonnes of them every year, and export them alive to countries who long ago wiped out their own eel stocks but still think eels are a delicacy.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment prepared an excellent and very readable report on the longfin eel in 2013, looking at numbers, threats, and the commercial fishery. She concluded:

“It is critical that we stop fishing longfin eels. It is not just fishing that is a problem, but stopping it is the only action that has immediate potential to reverse the decline of this extraordinary creature.”

The commercial eel industry employs maybe 100 people, mostly part-time eel fishers, and is worth only $0.5 million a year: a tiny fraction of our exports. Quite a bit of taxpayer money is spent propping up this industry though. Apart from the PCE report, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) assembled a panel of international experts to comment on the longfin monitoring, ran workshops, consulted, and has now prepared a discussion document on the South Island quota, which it will have to administer, collect data on, make regular reports, monitor… It seems like a lot of effort so that 30 full-time eel processors can keep making private profits off a public resource.

One of the recommendations was that the MPI set up a separate quota for the South Island longfin stocks (they’d been lumped in with shortfins) so the fishery could be at least monitored and controlled. The MPI are setting the quotas for different regions in the South Island right now, and are inviting public submissions, deadline Monday 11th, 5pm – although submissions opened on June 13, fisheries biologists were apparently only told a week or two ago, and the word’s hardly gotten out. There’s a Forest and Bird blog post with some advice on making a submission (it’s quick and easy, just write a clear, concise email stating your interest in this and your opinions and suggestions). Here’s mine.


I am writing this submission on discussion paper 2016/15, Review of Management Controls for the South Island Longfin and Shortfin Eel Fisheries (LFE 11–16 & SFE 11–16) in 2016, to comment specifically on the South Island longfin eel fishery.

I am a biologist, and Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum. Whanganui has a deep connection with tuna and their harvest, and local iwi have resolved to improve the health of the river so stocks can recover; in my job I talk to the community about freshwater health and the biology of our native fishes. And of course as a South Islander, and a New Zealander, I’m a stakeholder in the health of South Island freshwater ecosystems, including longfins.

The independent panel commissioned by MPI in 2015 concluded that, although longfin numbers had probably dropped 80% from its original level, the decline may have slowed or “perhaps even slightly reversed” in the last five years. I am concerned that MPI has represented this as evidence that longfin eel stocks in the South Island are now recovering and can continue to support a commercial eel harvest.

There could be numerous explanations for the small uptick that is being used to claim longfin stocks are now recovering. Given longfins take well over a decade to reach a commercial catch weight, any real population increases would have to have begun at the height of mass dairy conversion and degradation in water quality we are observing in the South Island. Conversely, impacts being made today on breeding success and the recruitment of elvers into waterways will not affect the commercial eel harvest for over a decade. So it is unlikely that variations in catch per unit effort now, in isolation, are actually giving us good information on longfin population trends.

The independent experts commissioned by MPI found numerous problems with measures currently being used to assess eel numbers, and recommended that an integrated, long-term monitoring process begin, using a wide range of techniques and assessing all potential threats to longfins. Even adjusted for unit effort, catch rates represent the behaviour of fishers as much as the number of eels present – eel fishers are highly mobile and target just the areas where eels can be most easily caught, which can mask pervasive declines in the population.

There appears to be a difference of opinion between MPI and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as to whether the longfin population is at a harvestable level, and whether it is continuing to decline. It would seem impossible to allow a commercial fishery until, at the very least, both of these questions are settled to the satisfaction of the research community.

My opinion, speaking as a scientist, is this:

  1. The South Island longfin quota for 2016 should be reduced to zero (0) tonnes, and maintained thus for 20 years, during which longfin populations will be monitored to determine if they are in fact recovering.
  2. The quota should be uniform for the entire South Island, as elvers do not return to a specific stream, and so the entire breeding population of New Zealand is a single management unit, with harvestable eels in a few areas supporting the eel population of the entire country. It seems odd to allow effectively unrestricted harvest of longfins in areas like the West Coast (LFE 16) when these populations are supplying elvers, and thus determining stock levels, for the rest of the South Island.
  3. If the quota is not reduced to zero, it should be reduced to a level well below the current commercial take, as one of the few methods available to immediately help reverse the decades-long decline of longfins. The “nominal catch” levels indicated for LFE 11, 12, 13, & 14 would be appropriate, and should be extended to LFE 15 and 16, instead of the proposed levels of half the current average commercial catch (LFE 15) or an unrestricted continuing commercial catch of 25 tonnes (LFE 16).
  4. MPI should take the initiative in supporting a research programme, run by all fisheries biologists and ecologists with expertise in longfin eels, that will clearly determine a) a population level of longfins able to support a commerical harvest (for example, 30% of the pre-fishery stock) and b) robust, well-accepted methods of determining whether that level has been reached.
  5. Until those methods have been settled on, and until the population has recovered to that agreed level, the TACC should remain at 0 or nominal.
  6. This research programme should be totally or substantially funded not by the New Zealand taxpayer, but by the commercial longfin industry. If the commercial eel industry is not willing to help determine if longfin stocks can be sustainably harvested, they should no longer be allowed the privilege of taking and exporting this publicly-owned resource. Other extractive industries are responsible for determining the environmental impact of their activities: the eel fishery should be no exception.
  7. Recreational and traditional quota should remain unchanged if not reduced to a nominal level, but a consultation and education programme should begin with iwi to give each region the option of setting traditional harvest levels to 0 – effectively, a rahui – for a similar period, and working with ecologists to monitor the health and population levels of their local longfin stocks.

Quite apart from the scientific arguments, though, about methods for assessing stock levels, I would like to propose another reason why the South Island longfin quota be set to zero.

It is abhorrent.

I believe that if most New Zealanders understood the population trends and breeding biology of longfins, and that this species was nevertheless still being caught and exported for profit, they would vote to shut the industry down tomorrow. If it were similarly-threatened native birds being harvested for export, there would be public outrage. Future generations will shake their heads in disbelief that we allowed a commercial longfin industry to carry on into the 21st century, long after the decline of this species was clear; just as we do today when we recall New Zealand was still carrying out commercial whaling into the 1960s.

Thank you for considering this submission. I am happy to be heard in person in support of it if required.

Dr Mike Dickison
Whanganui Regional Museum

Some useful info:

Basically Everything is Worms

I was reading a piece by Melissa Hogenboom on the currently-recognised 35 different…well, let’s call them kinds of animals. A few years back I’d have been happy calling them phyla, but a phylum, like other rigid taxonomic ranks, is becoming unfashionable these days, as is the idea than all evolutionary trees fit neatly into same hierarchical categories. It’s a bit like how forms that want your postal address assume you have a state and ZIP code. (New Zealand has never has states, and when I was a kid there were no postcodes either.)

Nevertheless, the idea of fundamental difference in basic body plans is an interesting one; currently there are 35 different ways of being an animal. Some of these ways are enormously successful, others barely exist. There are over a million species of arthropods, 100,000 chordates (including us), 11,000 cnidarians, 1,200 ribbon worms, 100 comb jellies, 11 species of horseshoe worms, and a single kind of placozoan.

Most of these 35 groups contain just a few hundred species, or even fewer; the animal kingdom seems to have a “long tail”. In the literal sense, too, since the most common animal body plan is some kind of worm.


Hogenboom apparently had some difficulty preparing her story, particularly having to extract usable photographs from the one or two researchers working on some of the more obscure groups. I feel her pain. Still, when you’re the world expert on a family of tiny parasites that only live in squid kidneys, I doubt you have a press kit ready.