Notes from the field

Seasonal experience & expertise on the Kūaotunu Peninsula

Since embarking on fieldwork earlier this year, I have been periodically collecting photos from the beaches of the Kūaotunu Peninsula where my research is based.

Otama beach January 2021
Kerstie van Zandvoort
Otama beach June 2021
Kerstie van Zandvoort

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Utilizing dedicated photo-points, I am able to visually track the apparent progression of seasons over the months. A comparison of photos taken in both January and June from the same beach locations is revealing. In many cases a sunny winter’s day presents similarly to that of a sunny summer’s day. Of course, this is not totally unexpected from within the sub-tropical climes that prevail on the Coromandel - located on the north island of New Zealand.  Our milder climate is also associated with a predominantly evergreen native bush cover, which includes both broadleaf and conifer species. While undergoing seasonal seed production cycles, many coastal dune plants are also perennial. 

But in the absence of conventional physical seasonal cues derived from the traditional temperate climates of the northern hemisphere, such as winter snow and autumn leaf-fall, I am finding that Kūaotunu residents draw resourcefully from a wide range of alternative references to changing seasons - invariably based on their unique place-based experience of nature.

While these might include more obvious and widespread phenomenon such as observations of migratory bird and weather patterns, some conservationists have reported variability in the availability and viability of different seed species for native plant propagation alongside seasonal changes in animal pest catches along routine traplines. In the latter examples, both practices depend on participants making routine observations in place as the basis to their detecting, interpreting and evaluating seasonal change both within and between seasons from one year to another.  One resident relayed to me how, for him, the bush sounded different between seasons – with an aura of tranquility being restored in the aftermath of the summer holiday season.  The detailed and highly specific practical observations involved may be construed as localised forms of seasonal expertise.

To some degree, place also dictates the scope of potential references of seasonal variability. Two of the Kūaotunu beaches within my study are directly associated with upstream wetland habitats, which in combination provide additional references to seasonal flood levels alongside populations of flora and fauna. Consequently, different sites are likely to afford different types of seasonal knowledge and expertise.  This was the case historically, with extensive local variations in the customary seasonal indicators or ‘tohu’ observed and followed by indigenous iwi (Māori tribes) throughout New Zealand.

At the same time, it has been interesting to observe that although the majority of Kūaotunu’s ‘resident’ population are second homeowners, their involvement in many of the grassroots conservation initiatives operating on the Kūaotunu Peninsula still affords them with facets of local knowledge and expertise.  Many of the volunteer dune planting days I have participated in are attended by numbers of second homeowners, with some maintaining traplines on a weekend basis also.  I wonder, then, whether the ability of second homeowners to draw on external references of seasons and seasonality from their primary place of residence either aids or detracts from their interpretations and evaluations of seasonality both generally as well as on the Kūaotunu Peninsula?

Recently, the collective resident expertise of Kūaotunu’s populous has been highlighted in the declaration of a voluntary ‘rāhui’ (temporary suspension) by Ngāti Hei on fishing of scallops from within the coastal waters of Opito Bay at the end of 2020. Opito Bay is traditionally renowned for its fishing, with its scallop beds attracting both commercial and recreational interest. Although instigated by Ngātei Hei, the rāhui is widely backed from within the Kūaotunu community including through ratepayer associations and fishing clubs - based on their accumulated evidence of declining scallop numbers spanning decades. For these locals, a storm event in 2019 generated a tipping point in the decimation of scallop numbers. While the Government is yet to formally sanction restrictions on scallop fishing from within Opito Bay, a two-year rāhui is being collaboratively upheld by local experts - as a great example of citizen science in action.