Scientists have made some promising headway in a $11.5m mega-project that promises to transform our understanding of New Zealand's oceans.

The Moana Project – a collaboration led by MetService's MetOcean Solutions - aims to make New Zealand a world leader in ocean-forecasting capability, on the back of data amassed by high-tech, low-cost instruments mounted on fishing vessels.

A year after launching the five-year effort, scientists have developed innovative methods to observe ocean temperatures – something that's typically been incredibly difficult with sparse data collection points in the vast and wild oceans surrounding us.

New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is 20 times larger than its land mass and supports a marine economy estimated to be worth $4 billion a year – yet the resources it depends on are threatened by rising ocean temperatures.


The Tasman, particularly, was warming at one of the fastest rates on Earth - up to three times the global average – making good data more important than ever.

"With the enhanced ocean knowledge this project will provide, New Zealand will be better prepared for the changes in our oceans and the impact of warming seas on our coastlines and marine environments," said the project's director, João de Souza.

With help from Nelson-based firm Zebra-Tech, scientists have already developed smart ocean temperature sensors and tested them in small-scale trials.

Following a bigger trial incorporating additional vessels over a broader area, they'll be deployed throughout the EEZ with support from the commercial fishing sector's fleet.

"The result will be an unprecedented amount of subsurface ocean data that we'll be able to assimilate into our models," said one of the project's team leaders, Julie Jakoboski.

Researchers have also been building computer algorithms to model our ocean dynamics, such as circulation, currents and sub-surface temperatures, which aren't covered in detail by international programmes.

The ocean forecasting model developed through the project pulled in historical and new data focused on New Zealand waters, giving scientists a much closer look.

"We've gathered historical ocean data and used it to improve our newly developed ocean model of New Zealand's coastal and ocean shelf regions called the Moana Backbone," de Souza said.


"The 25-year hindcast is an incredibly valuable dataset that is now freely available to researchers and the broader community.

"We're also currently developing several models based on our team's research that look closely at our coastal waters – namely the Kaikoura canyon, the Bay of Plenty, and the Marlborough Sounds."

"Marine heatwaves are a contemporary issue and the team's research into identifying their drivers within New Zealand and the Tasman will be vital to identify and mitigate risks and help us forecast future events."

Another big part of the programme was gaining a deeper understanding of kaimoana – namely mussels, crayfish and paua.

"We've got a PhD student looking at the effects the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake had on pāua populations," said Jonathan Gardner, another of the team leaders.

"In the Bay of Plenty region, once mussel sample collection has been completed genetic and microchemistry analyses will be undertaken, which will help inform where individual mussels have travelled."

On a national scale, scientists were also getting a better picture of how ocean circulation on gene flow – both now and in future climate-change scenarios.

Another element was learning from iwi about their oceanographic knowledge honed over centuries of ocean voyaging, kaimoana gathering and the observed changes to our oceans.

One PhD student was now researching the effects of changes in our marine climate on traditional waka navigation.

Other groups involved in the Moana Project include Victoria, Auckland, Waikato and Otago universities, Niwa, the Cawthron Institute, Seafood NZ, Deepwater Group, the Ministry for Primary Industries and regional councils.