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Dusky and Breaksea Sounds are considered to be one of the most remote areas of New Zealand, when visiting here it feels as though time stood still and little has changed over thousands of years. We know however that this is not true. Above water early records show that bird numbers have dwindled and predators have made their mark resulting in efforts that span the century to preserve precious flora and fauna. Underwater the marine environment has been changing as well, and while we have anecdotal evidence of this from residents of the area over the years very little long term data has been collected . The geographical isolation of Dusky and Breaksea Sounds has meant that it is one of the least studied marine ecosystems in the world. 

Paul and Katherine Mitchell are the managers of Fiordland Charters, a business that has been operating boat charters aboard MV Pembroke for over 20 years in Dusky/Breaksea Sounds. Over the last 5 years the Sounds have become their second home and having seen changes occur over such a short period of time they sought to find information relating to these changes and realised there was very little out there. Sparked by a desire to give back to the area and better understand the marine environment, Paul reached out to the Fiordland Marine Guardians who connected them Prof James Bell and Dr Alice Rogers from Victoria University. By recognising that the biggest barrier to science in Fiordland is its remote location they were able to start a conversation around how they (Paul and Katherine) as citizens could play a part in monitoring and data collection. “We have a boat permanently based in Breaksea, how can we use this asset and our time on the ground to gain a better understanding of this unique area?’ Paul asked. 

Prof Bell has been working in Fiordland since 2018, although most of this work has been focused on Doubtful Sound. James first heard about what Paul and Katherine were trying to achieve through the Fiordland Marine Guardians, and it sounded like a fantastic opportunity. So when Paul and Katherine invited James and Alice to an inaugural meeting in November 2021 onboard the boat, how could they refuse. James’ research has a strong climate change focus, and working with Paul and Katherine and the now named Southern Fiordland Initiative team, represented a unique opportunity to work in Fiordland and address really important questions. James considers himself very lucky to join the SFI team as a founding member and is very much looking forward to seeing what the SFI will achieve in the coming years. The particularly important part for James is the inclusion of the citizen science components of the programme. He considers it extremely important to engage and involve the wider public in projects such as ours. We need people to know what’s happening in Fiordland, so they will care and want to help protect these iconic places.

Alice has been working alongside James in Fiordland since 2019, and fell in love with the area from her very first visit. Alice’s research tries to predict the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, so that we can provide the best possible management to ensure that they survive and thrive for future generations to enjoy. James and Alice work effectively together because of their varying expertise; James knows all about the organisms that inhabit the seafloor, whilst Alice’s focus is on the mobile animals like fish, sharks, and larger invertebrates. The opportunity to help to get SFI off the ground, and commit to its goals for the long-term came at the perfect time for Alice, who was relatively new to New Zealand and figuring out where, and what to focus her research efforts on.“I have always had a passion for research that makes a difference to peoples’ lives, and science that includes those who are associated with, and rely upon a particular ecosystem” says Alice “being part of something that has the local people at its foundation, is such a inspiring and rare opportunity.”

Following the inaugural meeting in November 2021 the Southern Fiordland Initiative was formed. The purpose of this partnership is to provide a stable long term platform to ensure critical research is undertaken in the Southern Fiords. We believe the partnership between scientists and citizens spending time in the Fiords can help solve the barrier that geographical isolation has brought in the past. 

The Southern Fiordland Initiatives focus is on answering two key questions; What are the climatic conditions and ecosystem health of the Fiords right now? And how are they changing? we plan to:

1. Establish long-term climate change monitoring stations

2. Establish a citizen-science based habitat mapping program

3. Create a long-term deep and shallow water monitoring program

4. Establish research programs on two iconic indicator species of Fiordland, the black coral Antipathella fiordensis, and the ancient seven-gill shark, Notorynchus cepedianus

5. Study the ecologically important sponges in Fiordland (including recent bleaching).

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