Staff profile: Mike Hickford

Mike Hickford is a freshwater ecologist working from our Christchurch office.

NIWA Freshwater Ecologist Mike Hickford is leading a study on the life cycle of īnanga. 

What is your area of specialty/role at NIWA?

I am an ecologist in the Freshwater Ecology team in Christchurch. I have completed a lot of research on the early life history of fish, particularly their reproductive biology, dispersal, and population connectivity. Recently, my work has focused on whitebait, particularly īnanga (the most common whitebait species), looking at where they lay their eggs, where they go while in the ocean and when they arrive back at a river as whitebait. Earlier in my career I researched marine fish species, looking at the dispersal of eggs and larvae, how they move from their reproductive habitat to the areas where they grow and develop into adults.

What made you want to work in that area?

I trained in marine ecology originally, so studying diadromous species (fish that spend some of their life in freshwater and some of their life in the sea), was a natural progression. Diadromous species can move a long way while they are at sea. My research has been a blend of oceanography and learning how these species develop and find their way back to freshwater. I think it’s important to learn more about the reproductive stage of fish. It’s a time when they are vulnerable; either because they are dependent on a key habitat, or because they have grouped together to spawn, and they are easy pickings for predators. I also love field work, and as an ecologist, I can get out of the office, see some spectacular parts of New Zealand (and the world), work with some unique species and get paid to do it!

What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve done in your career so far?

I helped a class of six-year-olds at Kaniere School in Hokitika write and publish a picture book about the life cycle of whitebait. The book is called The Adventures of Finneus Whitebait, complete with beautiful watercolour illustrations by a very clever parent. I provided some whitebait facts that were woven into the story, contributing to a successful project. The book is used by The Whitebait Connection in their school programmes all around the country and all the profits from sales go back to the Kaniere School PTA. We are now thinking of writing a sequel! 

What do you like to do outside of your work at NIWA?

I like to spend time with my family at our bach on the West Coast – lots of good memories made while swimming, walking, mountain biking, and relaxing. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get to do a bit of whitebaiting as well. I am also a complete rugby tragic and love spending (possibly too much) time watching my sons or others play the game.