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Dr Bill Ballantine, marine biologist

Ballantine copy.JPGA major redevelopment is on the drawing board for the Leigh Marine Laboratory, at Goat Island. Auckland University plans to make it into one of the country’s leading marine research facilities. But its founding director Bill Ballantine can remember when it was an unfurnished hut, miles from anywhere. Local Matters editor Jannette Thompson caught up with the supposedly retired Dr Ballantine at his Goat Island home.

Have you always loved the sea?

I was born in Leicester, about as far away from the sea as you can get in England. My parents were both Irish so at the end of the war when holidays were possible, we went to Northern Ireland to a place where there was a rocky shoreline. I was seven and it was the first time I’d seen the sea. It captivated me immediately. I realise now that what I recognised was that it was “natural”. Essentially, I have spent my life, finding or making places more natural.

What effect did the war have on your childhood?

I was born two years before the start of World War II so I belong to a small group of people who grew-up thinking war was normal. Things got very strange when peace arrived. On today’s standards we would be called deprived but everyone was in the same boat so it didn’t seem odd that we never had new clothes or toys, and only barely enough to eat. Material things have never been important to me and if I really want to feel like a decadent millionaire, then all I have to do is allow myself two fried eggs for breakfast.

What bought you to New Zealand?

Limpets! Britain only has one limpet species, compared to NZ where you can find up to seven different species on one rock. I was also following a mentor and my former PhD supervisor John Morton, a New Zealander who’d been teaching in England. He became the first professor of zoology at Auckland University and his book The NZ Sea Shore, first published in 1968, was probably the best book on the subject of shorelines in the world at that time. I arrived in NZ on a two-year NATO post-doctoral Fellowship.

How did you wind-up at Goat Island?

My wife Dulcie, who passed away 10 years ago, didn’t want to live in a city. John Morton had chosen Goat Island as the site for the laboratory so I suggested that they appoint a resident biologist. When we arrived in 1964, it was just a hut without any furniture and miles from anywhere. Dulcie and I were married in Christchurch between tides when I was doing some survey work on the East Coast. We didn’t have any money so it was a combined research trip into the population densities of limpets and honeymoon. Our children Michael and Mary grew up here. Mary has four children now and still lives at Leigh. Michael works in Auckland.

You are passionate about marine reserves. Is enough being done?

I’ve been promoting marine reserves for 40 years. NZ now has 27 but it’s an ad hoc network. NZ considers itself a world leader in the area of marine protection but it’s like leading in a race of arthritic tortoises. We are long overdue for a full and coherent system of marine reserves but to do this we need a clear policy based on principles everyone understands. The Department of Conservation has been negotiating in secret with the Ministry of Fisheries for five years on a policy but still nothing has happened.

You must find this frustrating?

As a grandparent, I believe there is an urgent need to safeguard our children’s futures. But it will take an enormous mind shift. Decision-makers find it almost impossible to make decisions when the outcomes are unclear or unknown. But that’s what it takes. When the Goat Island Marine Reserve was proposed, the experts on snapper said an area one kilometre wide and five kilometres long wouldn’t have any affect at all. They were wrong. The snapper in the reserve thrived and populated areas outside the reserve. Another example is the kina beds which don’t exist in the reserve today. We discovered that large crayfish and snapper are able to graze on kina. No one realised when we did the original mapping that the beds were unnatural. The social outcomes were also unforseen. If someone in the late 1960s had suggested that people would come “fish watching”, people would have laughed. And yet, more than 300,000 people a year come to Goat Island to do exactly that. There have also been economic spin-offs that were not anticipated. My point is that sometimes you just don’t know what is going to happen until you do it. But we do know marine reserves are practical and that once established, they are popular and successful. I believe the decision-makers will be the last to change their views. It’s ordinary people who will make things happen.

Are you optimistic?

I’m always optimistic enough to keep going but sometimes it gets very frustrating. I went to a meeting in Warkworth about the proposed reserve at Tiri. It was depressing to hear the same arguments about the rights of fishermen that were used in the 1970s against Goat Island, being repeated. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing.

And the future?

My knees are giving out on me so my days of field work are coming to an end. But there is still a lot of work to be done analysing, calculating and finding a meaning in the data I have. I also enjoy assisting other people, by giving talks and conducting workshops, both here and overseas. I intend to grow old disgracefully still annoying people about marine reserves.


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