Erica Williams - Where the water is clean

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Erica Williams with her daschunds Pippi and Scout. [Photo: Dave Allen, NIWA]

Erica Williams' story starts with the website of Moerewa School, where pupil Tyra-Lee explains her connection to a very special place in her small Far North town.

“Tuna Town is a little swimming hole in Moerewa. It’s an adventurous place where my friends and I play clay fights and race to the little island there. We jump off the banks and trees into the water.

“I think that Tuna Town is really special because my whole family knows about it, and all my friends go there with me. It was here long before Moerewa town was built. Interesting things have happened there, such as finding special taonga while exploring the forest and finding a dead sheep in the water.

Tuna Town special

“The story goes that before Moerewa was established, two cab drivers use to always drive back and forth from Moerewa to Kawakawa. The cab drivers would always stop at an old hut near where Tuna Town is and they would always see big tuna hanging from the eel line like clothes hanging from a clothes line. This shows how many tuna used to swim in our rivers. When they saw all the tuna hanging there they thought to name it Tuna Town, and the name has remained ever since.

“The only thing that could make Tuna Town even more special is if we could swim and feel safe knowing that the water is clean. I hope that in the future Tuna Town can be still around for other generations to enjoy.”

Tyra-Lee’s description of the importance of Tuna Town—and her hopes for its future—is something Dr Erica Williams, a scientist with Te Kūwaha, NIWA’s Māori environmental research team, closely identifies with.

Importance of tuna to the Māori community

Like Tyra-Lee, Erica grew up in Moerewa, learning first-hand the importance of tuna to the Māori community in particular.

“Tuna to this day sustains a large part of that community. It’s part of a hunting and gathering tradition that’s incredibly important to Māori.

“It’s not only about the activity itself and feeding your family; it’s also about the place and all the knowledge that’s associated with that place, with the stories that are passed down. It’s not just about getting some kai for the table; it’s also about whanaungatanga and kaitiakitanga.

“Really that’s a big reason why I do what I do now.”

Erica (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Whānau ā Apanui) started at NIWA as a technician in the eco-toxicology lab in 1995 after completing a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Waikato.

Focus on Māori research needs

As a member of NIWA’s freshwater fisheries team, Erica studied fish populations and the downstream migration of tuna (freshwater eels) and fish passage through culverts. She completed her PhD at the University of Auckland, investigating the effects of a group of contaminants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on shellfish.

While hesitant to put her decision to become a scientist solely down to her culture and upbringing, Erica says it is definitely a major influence on her career progression at NIWA.

“Growing up in that (small rural town) environment, you don’t think it’s any different to anywhere else in New Zealand. But when you get to university, you realise that not everyone has had those very special and privileged opportunities and experiences.

“University isn’t necessarily a case of opening up a world of opportunities; in some ways, it narrows things down. I realised the way I was brought up was much more broad and holistic. At that time, there was hardly any focus on Māori research needs. I’m sure there were people working on it, but there were very few Māori scientists. In my course at the University of Waikato there were four of us, and we could pick each other out in a huge lecture theatre.

“That was part of my generation, over two decades ago. It’s the way New Zealand was. Everything was pretty mainstream, especially at universities. There weren’t the same options available as there are now.”

NIWA’s commitment to scientific partnership and collaboration with Māori

It was a similar situation at NIWA until key people within the organisation, such as Dr Charlotte Severne, recognised the importance—and value—of being much more inclusive of Māori in its scientific work. Today, Te Kūwaha is the spearhead of NIWA’s commitment to scientific partnership and collaboration with Māori.

“We (Te Kūwaha) represent a Māori voice inside a predominantly Pākehā organisation, and we try to make sure that as much of the funding that NIWA has the privilege to seek and secure has at least considered a Māori-driven research component. It’s quite a daunting, but very important job, and we’re getting better at it all the time. It’s not only about making a case to the Crown that this is required; it’s also about showing our own staff that there’s a point of difference, a benefit to be gained, by adding that Māori-driven research component into their work and taking a holistic approach.”

Māori tradition and science are not mutually incompatible, Erica says. In fact, partnering with Māori makes for better scientific outcomes.

“Bringing the two approaches together adds a lot more strength and gives scientists a much broader understanding of what’s going on. Māori provide a massive historical context that we may not otherwise draw on or be aware of, which also helps to interpret results—local knowledge is incredibly important. Many scientists are starting to recognise that.”

At the moment, much of NIWA’s scientific collaboration with Māori is happening in the freshwater space. That’s no surprise, says Erica.

“Freshwater is one of the most important taonga that Māori relate to. There are stories, songs and oral histories all related to waterways. So much of Māori life was, and is, connected to them.”

Kaitiakitanga over our waterways

Māori have a keen sense of kaitiakitanga—guardianship—over our waterways, and they are concerned about their health now and in the future.

“Enough is enough—that’s what I hear a lot from kaumātua and kuia around the country.

“It’s an issue for all New Zealanders, but most people don’t realise that Māori are the ones working with the hydro-dam operators, councils, government departments, and conservation and community groups—they are the ones maintaining all of these relationships and making sure conversations are happening across organisations.”

With NIWA scientists like Erica working successfully in partnership with Māori, special spots such as Tuna Town have a brighter future as places where the water is clean and there’s plentiful kai that is safe to eat.

Just as Tyra-Lee hopes.

[This feature appeared in Water & Atmosphere 18]

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Research subject: MaoriWater Quality