Leading the way

When asked what attracted her to the study of marine macro-algae, NIWA delegate Wendy Nelson joked about getting paid to go to the beach.

Dr Nelson says she “loves” that her career has enabled her to explore New Zealand’s vast waters from the Kermadecs to the sub-Antarctic.

“I’d go quietly crazy if I was stuck in the office the whole time.”

But during her 35 years of exploration she’s also made a huge contribution to the classification and conservation of New Zealand seaweeds.

That includes doubling the size of Te Papa’s collection during 15 years as Curator of Botany at the museum.

While many of these underwater plants go unseen by most of us, Wendy points out that improving our knowledge of them is important.

“So many other sea lifeforms rely on seaweed. It’s an important habitat.”

Last year Wendy was awarded the highest honour of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society, the Nancy Burbidge Medal for her efforts.

She stresses that the accolade is due to the efforts of a team of dedicated researchers.

“I’m humbled and grateful for the recognition but anything I do is dependent on a whole lot of people.”

Wendy is part of a group discovering and documenting marine biodiversity within the Marine Biological Resources programme at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. She says human impacts are noticeable in the coastal environment.

“There’s no question we are seeing shifts because of heatwaves, changing global oceans. The flow on effects are some species are struggling to maintain their positions.”

Wendy says effects from different types of fishing, and human activities on land which create pollution and sedimentation can also be seen.

But she says the infrastructure for documenting our biodiversity in New Zealand is lacking, due to inadequate funding and poor coordination.

Wendy raised this issue as chair of a Royal Society Review of taxonomic collections in 2015, and the lack of quality environmental data has been highlighted again recently by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

“New Zealand doesn’t have a lot of money for science and conservation but we need to be getting value from it. The Government has continued to fail to address these issues.”

In 2019 NIWA became the first Crown Research Institute to go on strike in a dispute over conditions and respect in the workplace.

As a delegate, Wendy says she tries to enable good communication between the workforce and management as a combined approach provides better outcomes for staff.

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Signing for solidarity

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