Friday, August 20, 2010

Poor Knights Marine Reserve: Deepest Marine Passion

From my first momentous dive there in 1963 the Poor Knights Islands ecosystem became one of my deepest interests for the next forty odd years.  By celebrating its wonders and writing numerous periodical articles I joined the lengthy fight that led to its total protection as a Marine Reserve and the extraordinary resurgence of marine life we now see there.*

Still Image bank:
Extensive transparencies on CD ROM, including an elaborate presentation titled Poor Knights Library, consisting of seven books by Doak about the Poor Knights, in PDF form.  Besides cataloguing its fishes and marine invertebrates this disc includes a history of diving exploration there; a month by month seasonal events survey; and an intensive narrative description of the top ten Poor Knights dive locations.

With Islands of Friendly Fishes  1973 I had the luxury of spending months out there aboard Dr Walt Starck’s undersea research ship El Torito pursuing a research project with him and other diving scientists which explored aspects of fish behaviour and documented the ecology of the islands in the context of  tropical coral reef life.  A prime moment was having the use of Walt’s yellow submarine for an elaborate fish experiment: described in my book Sharks and Other Ancestors  1975.

With the film Cliff Dwellers  1981, directed by Doc Wlliams, I told how the Poor Knights islands were born volcanically some ten million years ago and I provided a general picture of its life both above water and below including the period of human habitation.
City Under the Sea  1990,  looks at the ecology of Poor Knights fishes as if they were a connected series of Trade Unions or Guilds and explores the life-styles peculiar to each.  I tried to explain the complexity of their living patterns by comparing them to the life of a big city.  We used a number of novel camera techniques such as remote control of a camera on tripod. 

Castle of the Deep  1995, looks at the ecology of Poor Knights’ great range of  sea caves which I classified into types and then came to see how the archways and tunnels compress long stretches of coast line into a single throughway; and thousands of metres of vertical descent are traversed as one swims horizontally into a darkening cul de sac like Rikoriko Cave.  With many exciting examples to draw on, two excellent film crews and idyllic conditions I make the point that we do not dive at the Poor Knights: we dive in them. 

As these films became known overseas I found I was regarded as the Cousteau of New Zealand by German and French T.V. makers.  Further films resulted in which I presented the Poor Knights to German, French and Japanese viewers:
Poor Knights Islands: Freizeit/German TV -Doak presents NZ’s top                                                 Marine Reserve to German divers.  1996.

Poor Knights: German TV.  Carola Hepp, director.  Doaks present PK to                                     German viewers; Brady Doak: U/W camera.  1997

Poor Knights: Tauchsport/German.  TV. Wade Doak uses his own underwater                                                 camera to present island ecology.  1999. NB: All underwater material here is Doak’s own 3 chip digi stock.             

Thalassa French TV: Ocean Channel: doco on Poor Knights/ Doaks/ marine                         reserves.  Director: Antoine Mora.  Doak supplied extra footage.  Late 2004.

Poor Knights Fishes: Doak’s own film: a catalogue of all Poor Knights fish species organised in ecological groupings or guilds.  On DVD.
Poor Knights Inverts: Doak’s own film: a catalogue of Poor Knights invertebrate species, phylum by phylum, from sponge to ascidian.  On DVD.

Seasons at the Knights: Doak’s own film: follows the seasonal changes at the Poor Knights over an annual cycle.  Matched by a text in Doak's Poor Knights Library CD Rom which presents monthly events.  On DVD.

The Cliff Dwellers: an Undersea Community   1979
Wade Doak’s World of NZ Fishes   1991
Deep Blue: a South Pacific Odyssey: chapter five:  Castle of the Deep: Poor Knights Islands   1997.



Yesterday we seemed to be the only boat at the Poor Knights.  Stiff offshore breeze. Shadowfax took ten of us swiftly out on a filming expedition.  Andrew Penniket is making a film about marine reserves for the Forest and Bird Society, aided by my son, Brady.  Having dived the Knights since ’63 I did bits to camera about the changes I have seen since the MR was made total no-take.

Blue Maomao Arch was full of demoiselles and blue maos, all in parking mode.  No feeding.  Very static schools hanging in mid-water.  Others entering, in ropes, mixed species; heading straight at the camera.  A bit of that skimming gamesplay by the maos.  These plankters use the arch as a refuge on days when there is no plankton.  Hard for kingies etc to hunt them in there.  It was so clear you could see right through the arch. Seventeen degrees.  The dry suit divers did not notice it.

A bunch of about ten big snapper were cruising about in the vicinity of the arch.  Or hovering motionless.  One had a small trevally accompanying it, riding over its back or alongside its flank.  Andrew saw it make rushes on oblique swimming blennies, using the snapper for cover.

From cabin talk it seems that a more subtle aspect of a Marine Reserve bedding in may be the development of interspecies relationships like this: learnt behaviours that take time to evolve and depend on not being interrupted by fishing.  There are a couple of big snapper out there using divers as decoys to get near demoiselles.  I recall a john dory near Trevs Rocks that did this, accompanying divers like a fox terrier.  But its motives were not friendship;. One had the feeling of being used... I filmed a kingie swimming under a ray for the same sneaky Pete purpose.  I have become most interested in collecting anecdotes of any unusual relationships divers may observe that unfold as the MR matures.

We have begun noticing snapper accompanying rays for their faeces: up to three snapper to one ray.  On a day when Northern Arch was full of rays dive guide Geoff Miller saw them all exit together, followed by a contingent of eager snapper.  The rays took a mass dump and the snapper had a mass orgy of coprophagy.  Lolly scramble.

 A nice bit of filming by Andrew shows a big red moki munching away at the reef, with its fat kissing lips, gushing junk from its gills while female Sandagers wrasses and triplefins hovered about for crumbs. I have seen them doing this with an eagle ray that could crush Cook's Turban shells in its powerful jaws.  The wrasse girls had a helluva fight over the scraps and I got rare pic of one in negative coloration: a brown fish with two white blobs on its furious flanks.

Andrew Penniket’s interview questions about the Poor Knights reserve and changes I have seen since it became total no take, left me thinking.  I have since started to do a study of the subject.

Basically, apart from the snapper, the changes are not obvious.  It would be extremely dramatic if a coastal bay like Matapouri were made a MR.  Back in the sixties when we lived there Kelly Tarlton and I could see most coastal species in a short swim from the river mouth to the next bay.  But now ....

The PK were never visually depleted to the untrained eye.  Those fish we saw last week cramming Blue Maomao Arch are not a change due to the MR.  But if the area were not protected, increasing recreational fishing would very likely have begun to impact on the bluemaos -eventually.  Not the demoiselles though.  Lack of predation by kingies and snapper probably favours them.  With the blue maos it would be a quid each way... Human predation; fish predation.  And we should not forget the barracoutas: their numbers may increase with no fishing pressure [ kahawai were said to be a major predator of their juveniles and we have whacked the kahawai in NZ].  In mid-winter out in Maroro bay from Rikoriko cave I have seen ‘coutas down deep, over the sand plain, rounding up demoiselles in a vast lenticular school like wolves.  But 'coutas avoid divers like the plague.  We very seldom see them yet they are there. One day recently Martin Ward noticed a school of fish thrashing the surface near the Sugarloaf.  Expecting trevally, he went over.  To his surprise, it was demoiselles being chased up and attacked by barracoutas.

Only accurate scientific work could answer problems that arise from some of my questions.  If only we could get scientists like Drs Choat and Ayling back from Oz to resurvey areas they did back in the seventies.  My second fish book [Wade Doak’s World of New Zealand Fishes, which is really a study of the PK fish community; my publisher chose a broader title for sales reasons] has a chapter summarising their wonderful work near Nursery Cove.

I think the sight of three big male green wrasses around the arch entrance may be a post no-take improvement.  They were showing aggressive wintertime displays; part of courtship: all fins upright and radiantly white.  Big wrasses like that would have been very hookable.

Pre total closure snapper were not common and very scary; pink maomaos were reducing in number and often showed sign of injury from foul hooking.  Schools of golden snapper were severely reduced to ones and twos.  Trevally schools had been much reduced by purse seining in the seventies.  Kingies had become small and in groups of up to half a dozen.  Hapuku had become very rare and very small {they still are.]  Packhorse crays were rare.  A bit of recovery there but, like hapuku, the influence on them extends beyond the MR.  Fishermen know how to track them on sonar as they migrate to spawn over the open sand.  They are sitting ducks for their pots day after day.

It has been a huge thrill to see a golden snapper schools return to the Northern Arch and Tie Dye Arch.  But I await seeing them again in Rikoriko cave, as in the old days.

Spotted black grouper and yellow-banded perch, always suckers for taking a bait, are now on the increase.  Wait till those spotteds get to be huge and very diver friendly, as at the Kermadecs.  At Lord Howe Island I recall, one sucked a pretty bikini girl’s leg while she was taking pix.  Gay though her buddy wanted attention…Click… then she turned around-

After considering the gross changes as above, I would like to gradually assemble a picture of the complex and subtle relationships that emerge, year by year, and which result from protection.  At the PK we are approaching an undisturbed community of reef fishes-ultra rare in today's world.  But it has to evolve through time.  We are witnessing only the initial signs of something more magnificent than any diver has EVER seen at the PK, perhaps a wonder of the future world, because it was depleted by fishing before we started out there in the sixties.  Old Leo Ducker once told me  "the first thing we spearos did at the PK back in the fifties was whack the bluefish."  I have film of a school of abut sixty of them, big deep blue ovals, filing past the mouth of Nursery Cove, a convoy in groups of three or four.  But why such a sight is still rare is a mystery.  Maybe they gather in autumn to spawn... ?  Jan and I once saw bluefish schooling to eat salps near the surface by Trevor’s Rocks too.

As Andrew Penniket wrote in a recent Dive NZ, reef fishes have been discovered to live unbelievably long lives.  One hundred years for a black angelfish!  Big red moki like we used to see in virgin areas, such as the volcano rim off Waipoua forest, will develop in the PK MR- but it takes a long while.  They have been protected since the MR began and even before that: it should be remembered, N.Z.U.A. divers had an agreement to leave reef fish alone out there, pre MR.

Emergent relationships such as kleptoparasitism, [stealing from other species], fish cleaning and coprophagy show how complex a fish community really is through time and what a huge impact we have on it when we remove so many of the big ones for trophyism.  We should be leaving the big ones for stud.

As kingfish re-establish themselves in the PK MR, some are becoming residential, just part of the standing community, like the snapper.  Martin Ward describes seeing one swimming through a grove of kelp in an odd way. “Its actions were slow and deliberate.  Not the first time it had used this approach in my opinion.”  Then he realised its strategy: it made a zoom attack on a group of oblique swimming blennies.  Who would have thought they would be kingie tucker!  I am starting to see that subtle relationships such as this are emerging as things settle down.  It requires a no-take reserve for long-term relationships to develop.  As with most animals fish behaviour is much more plastic and complex than we have assumed.

I referred my study to Dr Trevor Willis of NIWA.  First Trev made the important distinction between long-term changes at the PK and cyclical changes made by climate

‘Hi Wade,
I started surveys at the PK in 1998, and Chris Denny carried on as part of his PhD.  We've got the dynamics of most reef fish species at the Knights, Mokes and Cape Brett from 98-02.  It reinforces the importance of the prevailing sea surface temperature (i.e. E.A.C. patterns and El Nino) as a driver of PK reef fish dynamics. The warm period in the late 90's gave us a big influx of tropicals-there was a boom in the abundance of species: wrasses like Coris picta and crimson cleaners and I saw lots of juvenile Thalassoma that unfortunately never survived for long.  After about 2000 these started to decline again as the S.S.T. dropped.  Anyway, the dynamics of the tropicals and subtropicals has little to do with reserve status – it’s all about supply of recruits.

 The snapper increase is very dramatic story, and our data also indicate a revival of pink maomao - not surprising given that we heard some charter operators out of Tutukaka were loading up with clients who were specifically targeting them.  Unfortunately, our monitoring was not continued long enough to pick up the return of hapuku and other rarer species, though I believe D.o.C. has been doing something there recently.

I think the key is time.  Given that some species are long-lived, slow-growing and slow to recruit, it may be still 10+ years before we start to see what the paradisiaical unfished Poor Knights might have looked like (I'm thinking resident kingies, herds of hapuku, huge spotted black grouper etc).  What we don't know is how the influx of snapper might affect other fish species and the habitat.
Wish I had some funding to get back up there...cheers,Trev

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