Death of a thousand cuts - ecosystem disturbance

Death of a thousand cuts - ecosystem disturbance

Intertidal flats of Mahurangi Harbour. (Photo: Jane Halliday, NIWA)

‘The problem that resource managers face in trying to protect coastal environments is that damage is like death of a thousand cuts – it is often the result of many different small disturbances, the effects of which accumulate over time.’ So says NIWA scientist Simon Thrush, who is leading a long-term project on ecological disturbance modelling at NIWA.

Most environmental threats come in the form of some sort of disturbance to natural ecosystems. In coastal ecosystems, potential disturbances can range from wide-scale impacts such as climate change and fishing, to the direct, localised effects of activities like dredging, or catchment-to-coast impacts like sediment runoff. The difficulty comes in making predictions about ecosystem responses to disturbance, because of their complexity. Also, disturbance at a small scale can sometimes be an essential part of ecosystem functioning.

NIWA scientists are developing a number of big-picture models, informed by field experiments, to identify the response of different elements of coastal ecosystems to varying types of disturbance. They hope to piece together the connections between responses of different parts of ecosystems over time. Pinpointing how various disturbances, at different magnitudes and frequencies, can affect ecosystems will provide a powerful tool in managing and protecting valued coastal environments.

Research subject: Oceans