Skip to main content

Ocean Cultures

Aotearoa Community Monitoring

Published onMar 08, 2018
Ocean Cultures
key-enterThis Pub is a Supplement to
Ocean Cultures Report
Ocean Cultures Report

Integrating modern data and indigenous knowledge as a new platform for community-led monitoring of marine microbial ecosystems in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

We are actively recruiting additional team members interested in the anthropological facets of indigenous ecosystem knowledge or in community engagement and outreach. We are also happy to consider other island communities interested in adopting these programs.


A single liter of ocean water contains up to 100 million phytoplankton, 10,000 zooplankton, 1 to 10 billion bacteria, and 100 billion viruses. Collectively, such organisms comprise the marine microbiome - the invisible but critical foundation of the ocean’s ecosystem, which governs the health, biodiversity, and innumerable processes that occur on our planet.

While the importance of the marine microbiome is universally acknowledged, we know very little about its complexities, and have only recently begun to characterize its structure, function, and global influence.

Advances in biotechnologies, including metagenomics and CRISPR-based assays, have offered new ways to study the countless species thriving in the deep sea and beyond. Yet, these technologies have yet to be integrated into most scientific curricula. We posit that these novels methods of scientific inquiry are tools that can be more commonly implemented by communities globally to understand how changing water temperatures impact the microbes that sustain the marine ecosystem.

While technological leaps have assisted in understanding the natural world at an unprecedented resolution, there is a lack of synergy between rapidly developing biotechnologies and more traditional forms of knowledge.

The māori residents on the Cook Islands have a long and deep connection to their island and its ecosystem - one that is intangible and difficult to describes in words or numbers. This knowledge, referred to as matauranga māori, considers ecosystems not as hierarchical categories of species and families, but as rich and tangled webs of interconnected organisms and forces. We believe that to have a comprehensive understanding of an ecosystem, it is crucial to consider both the quantitative work derived from biological analysis techniques as well as the qualitative work derived from speaking to Island residents and elders who have traditional knowledge about the ecosystem.

Now more than ever, expanding the capacity of island communities to incorporate the use of novel technologies as they see fit within their existing cultural monitoring methods can empower communities to take an active role in the health of their marine ecosystems.

Rarotonga, the largest and most populous of the Cook Islands.


We aim to create a program that integrates data acquired both by ‘contemporary’ technological measures as well as indigenous cultural practices as a new platform for community-led monitoring of marine ecosystems. We believe that a more cohesive synthesis between these two realms will result in a more vibrant portrait of ecosystem health and offer communities routes to intervene accordingly. Our Ocean Cultures program will specifically take shape as an educational framework, in which we plan to explore, learn, and create with students aged 10 to 15.

Long-term, we plan to develop this platform as a deployable curriculum, suitable for easy implementation in any island nation with an interest in characterizing their local marine microbiome.

Experimental Goal.

We aim to help students develop knowledge in foundational principles of ecology and environmental microbiology, as well as firsthand experience with common techniques used for studying microbial communities. Through a combination of interactive lessons and workshops, we will guide students through the experimental design process, sample collection and characterization, data analysis and presentation, and the development of follow-up hypotheses based on preliminary experimentation.

Examples of activities include qualitative characterization of microbes isolated from coral and marine samples under microscopes; culture and analysis of marine samples under various conditions to understand impacts of climate change; and bench-top visualizations of the functions of microbes in marine samples.

Cultural Goal.

We seek to collaborate with a local māori educator for the cultural dimension of this framework. The broad goal is to reinforce that experiential and observational knowledge of their island and its marine life is is just as important as modern quantitative methods in the continuous monitoring of the heath of its ecosystems

We plan to partner with elders and educators from within the community to guide the students through a series of creative discussions and workshops around how they interact with their marine ecosystem. An emphasis will be placed on māori cultural concepts of whakapapa (genealogy/connection to heritage and homeland), kaitiakitanga (guardianship and conservation), mauri (life force), mana (authority on social and political issues), and how it enhances responsibility to the environment.

We hope to foster a sense of cultural pride as well as an orthogonal set of tools that the students can use as a means to monitor the impacts of climate change on their oceans.


While our research group had worked with Maori in New Zealand, we have not yet been in contact with any researchers in Cook Islands. Currently, we are reaching out to an NGO, Kōrero O Te 'Ōrau , to partner on the development of this platform.


We have received a grant from the MIT pK - 12 Action Group to do the first half of the research project proposed (science education) in Hong Kong for two weeks in August 2018. We are hoping to expand the program to other Island communities or coastal nations with the interest of adding cultural and intergenerational components specific to a given location.


Communication with Cook Island Communities - April 2018

Curriculum development - April - June 2018

Deploy in Hong Kong | Fine-Tune Curriculum - July-August 2018

Deploy in Cook Islands - Late August/Early September 2018

Data Analysis and Community Feedback - September 2018

Packaging of Curriculum; Report and Next Steps - October 2018


Devora Najjar | MIT Media Lab | Graduate Student, Sculpting Evolution

Avery Normandin | MIT Media Lab | Graduate Student, Sculpting Evolution

Devora Najjar:

Devora Najjar has submitted this pub for publication.