By Alison Ballance
Healthy Harbour Watchers is a citizen science project in Dunedin run by retired science teacher Andrew Innes and University of Otago chemist Barrie Peake. Secondary school students volunteer a few hours on a Saturday, collecting water samples from Otago Harbour and analysing them for nutrients and contamination.
This citizen science project had its beginnings in 2005, when science teacher Andrew Innes spent a year at the University of Otago on a Royal Society of New Zealand teaching fellowship with the Marine Science Department. Andrew was keen to develop a long-term monitoring programme for the waters of Otago Harbour. “I was really just keen to develop a model that we could use in Otago Harbour or any estuaries. But it was clear talking to Barry that there was no reliable database for a lot of the information in Otago Harbour, and so the first part of the mission was to develop a team that could reliably build that database.”
A marine chemistry paper taught by Barrie Peake introduced Andrew to some of the techniques that now underpin the project.
“We would collect water, and analyse this for the major nutrients, nitrate and phosphate … and levels of chlorophyll, which is an indication of the biological activity. And Andrew was able to add in there a measurement of faecal coliform levels, too,” says Barry.
Students from three Dunedin colleges take part in the study. Once a month they visit ten sites around the harbour to collect water samples. They take these samples back to a chemistry laboratory at the University of Otago for analysis, with each team of students responsible for analysing one particular aspect of the monitoring.
Kaya Fukushima from St Hilda’s Collegiate is on the team that is responsible for measuring phosphate levels. “We make a mix reagent, and then add 40 mls of sample to 10 mls of the mix reagent. Then it reacts and turns blue, and we put it in the spectrophotometer to analyse [and compare against known standards].”
“I actually thought it sounded like a very exciting project, and a way to complement my study of both chemistry and biology by looking at a real life situation,” says Nic Taylor, a student at John McGlashan College, when asked why he was keen to take part.
“It’s definitely a really interesting experience,” adds fellow student Joshua Kim, “where we get to delve into using those skills we learn in the classroom and how we apply it to a real-life situation that has great meaning to the whole community of Dunedin.”
Andrew and Barrie say that as the students are dealing with very small concentrations of chemicals the project teaches them the importance of accuracy and the danger of possible contamination. They also point out that students really appreciate access to scientific tools such as clean glassware, as well as sophisticated equipment such as the spectrophotometer.
The project now has a 10-year dataset, and Andrew and Barry are turning their attention to analysing the data and looking for trends. Andrew says the project is well-known in Dunedin and he is often asked “is it safe to go in the harbour? What is it like in the harbour?”
“I would like to think that the Healthy Harbour Watchers project could develop a report card for the Otago Harbour that we can contribute to and people like the Otago Regional Council can contribute to.”
The Otago Regional Council is the body that is responsible for monitoring the quality of water in the harbour.