In sunny Tauranga, Ross Steele has spent the better part of the last 20 years defending his backyard against what he sees as a threat to open waterways: mangroves. “If we’d done nothing, a third of our estuary would now be under mature mangrove,” Steele estimates. When picturing New Zealand’s coast and its native flora, images of scarlet pohutukawa and flax-strewn sand dunes often come to mind. But in warm North Island estuaries, it’s the native mangrove that is prolific, blanketing the area between the low and high tide marks. It creates a barrier between the sand flats and shoreline, standing in the way of access to the water’s edge, and views of clear water.
For Steele, it’s a problem with a simple solution: limit mangrove spread by removing seedlings and cutting back mature plants. As chairman of the Waikareao Estuary Care Group, one of eleven such groups operating in Tauranga Harbour, he’s spent hundreds of hours clearing mangroves in an effort to preserve the aesthetics of the estuary he’s lived near since 1980.
“When I go up to Auckland and I’m going to the airport you can see the waterways up there and they are chocka with mangroves, except for the strips where the channels of water are,” he says. “Myself and others weren’t prepared to see our lovely estuary fall in that direction.”
There are just six volunteers left in Steele’s care group, which used to boast more than double that number. Steele, in his 60s, is the youngest. He says the members go out individually when they can—often wading through mud with push hoes to remove seedlings. Ultimately Steele wants to see open water restored and retained for future generations, his grandchildren in particular.
“You look at jet skis, you look at kayakers, you look at people out there after flounder, there’s a variety of recreational uses that our waterways have that—should they be mangrove—wouldn’t exist.”
Steele recalls doing a presentation about mangrove removal some 13 years ago to then-Tauranga Mayor Jan Beange. “At the
very start we didn’t have a resource consent and I remember being at Council where two of us made a five minute presentation and Jan said, ‘Ross, are you aware that what you are doing is illegal?’ I said, ‘yes Jan, but I’m prepared to stand up for what I believe in.’” Steele is aware of the “other side’s” perspective—that mangroves serve an important ecological function—but he has a pragmatic approach. He’s content to toe the “line in the sand,” clearing only the areas the council has deemed appropriate, and avoiding the bird nesting season.
But ultimately he would prefer no mangroves at all.