A former South Auckland boy has arrived to take charge of a research programme that promises to shed new light on the environmental issues spoiling Tauranga Harbour.
Professor Chris Battershill, an expert on marine ecology and environmental science, has been appointed as the new chairman in coastal science - a Tauranga-based role that promises to rival the science going into cleaning up Rotorua's lakes.
He will lead a programme in which some of the world's top young postgraduate coastal scientists will compile a map of the environmental forces behind phenomena affecting Tauranga Harbour such as sea lettuce blooms and the mangrove invasion.
Professor Battershill's focus on coastal marine and estuarine research will include working alongside a team of 12 leading international coastal scientists undertaking doctorate research projects - jointly funded by Germany's University of Bremen and Waikato University.
Known as Intercoast, the joint venture between the two universities will provide much of the brain power behind a new drive to prioritise coastal sciences in the Bay.
Professor Battershill was welcomed to the Bay yesterday by Maori leaders and representatives from the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Waikato University and Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.
He wants to carve out the same reputation for scientific excellence as the university's chairman in Rotorua Lakes Management and Restoration, Professor David Hamilton, brought to improving the Bay's rivers and lakes.
Crucial to both chairs was financial and scientific support from the regional council which is putting $1.5 million over 10 years into the university's coastal research position.
Professor Battershill, whose last job was principal scientist and research team leader at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, will bring a specialist knowledge of coastal margins and off-shore ecology to the Bay.
"Yesterday's welcome left me in no doubt about the stresses and strains on the harbour's ecology and the need to find sustainable solutions.
"The quality and robustness of the science was the most important thing," he said.
Ultimately, a big picture will emerge of the dynamics of the harbour's ecosystems, coupled with studies of the Bay's coastal shelf. Research will also try to cast new light on the marine enrichment issues associated with algal blooms and toxins in shellfish.
Professor Battershill said the reported turnover in the ecology of Tauranga's harbour and estuaries to mangrove forests was potentially serious. There can be a transition in the habitat for a few years under the influence of human or climate stress until the threshold of tolerance may be reached - like when coral reefs bleach and the environment can change to one dominated by seaweed.
"It will be important to determine the ecological thresholds of importance in the Bay of Plenty."
The Intercoast students will pick up different aspects of research and link it into a coordinated project theme.
They will also complement the existing scientific programmes of DOC, the regional council and the polytechnic.
Professor Battershill said there was already strong research going on in the Bay and they were not starting from scratch.
The role of the university's chairman of coastal science will be unique in New Zealand, with the aim of integrating across all the disciplines of physical engineering, geology, oceanography, chemistry, microbiology and ecology.
It will add to the existing research effort in the Waikato region to link understanding of the dynamics of the ecosystem, from the mountain ranges and rivers to the coast and reefs.