East Coast iwi leaders are planning the recruitment for myrtle rust jobs after receiving funding from the Government for their local response to combatting the deadly plant pathogen in August.
Myrtle rust threatens 37 of Aotearoa’s native plants in the myrtle family, including pōhutukawa and mānuka.
“It's hard to overlook the fact this is the first load of investment like this in our communities to address the issues and I think it's been underfunded up till now, it’s been appallingly underfunded which is why we're now so happy to have the funding to get started,” Te Whakapae Ururoa’s Tina Ngata of Ngāti Porou told 1News.
The first mature tree deaths from the disease occurred in Te Araroa last year, with ramarama of all ages being affected in a widespread area of the East Coast.
Te Whakapae Ururoa are planning to hold wānanga this month where locals can learn more about the surveillance and plant nursery technician roles, and expressions of interest will be sought.
“That day will be to get whānau out and show people what the monitoring will look like and start to tell to people about the jobs,” Tina Ngata of Te Whakapae Ururoa said.
Ngata said she’s particularly excited about the nursery technician role which will involve seeding collecting and propagation to build knowledge on how to effectively grow myrtle species, such as keeping ramarama and rohutu separate from other plants.
“Just trying to identify what are the strong strains, hopefully at the end of three years we’ll have a really good idea of what it takes to grow resilient myrtle species,” she said.
“At what point could you say, ‘OK, that’s a symptom that plant will probably have myrtle rust’ - just learning how to identify symptoms of myrtle rust on cultivars.”
The group is aiming to have the six roles filled by the end of October, with training to take place in November and work to start in the roles in December.
“Especially for summer, the seed collecting, while a lot of the seeding is happening,” Ngata said.
The roles are the first iwi-led myrtle rust work to be directly funded by the Department of Conservation.
The Government investment of $5 million to fund a total of 15 jobs was also awarded to Crown research institute Scion to identify the most vulnerable plant species in the Bay of Plenty and monitor the spread of myrtle rust in the region.
“If we don't do anything and everything in our power right now to understand the impacts and the spread of myrtle rust I think we could be in for a challenging time downstream,” Conservation Minister Kiritapu Allan said when the funding was announced.
"Now that we are starting to see broader spread, it's really important that we quantify that data to understand what we can do, if anything, take the lessons from places like Australia as well, incorporate that into our response, so that’s key for me right now."
The Government funding is the first new investment in efforts to protect our taonga tree species from the pathogen in several years.
It’s a significant development for surveillance of the disease in Aotearoa as the Government stopped field monitoring in 2018 when eradication efforts were ditched.
“We've been relying on citizen science to track the spread for us but quite often that's only tracking the spread in the urban environment not actually in the forest environment,” Scion myrtle rust researcher Roanne Sutherland said.
“I see this as a new pathway forward to enable those that are doing.. for us to be able to collate that information and put it into a system where we can all collectively understand the implications and impacts at a broader scale of myrtle rust,” Allan said.
“I think, yeah, this a new dawn and a new day for us all and I'm excited about it,” she said.
Since 2017, myrtle rust has been spreading rapidly from the far North to Christchurch, with particular hotspots reported around Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington and New Plymouth.
In 2018, Plant and Food Research scientist Robert Beresford created a map of the worst-case scenario of where myrtle rust may eventually spread to.
This shows it could become more established across the North Island and even spread down the South Island’s West Coast.
Earlier this year 1News revealed criticism of the myrtle rust response including a failure to genuinely involve iwi.
“The Crown has an absolute responsibility to uphold its Treaty obligations but I don’t think that we're confined within those obligations as well - here we have an incredible group of talented people who are located at place that have the skills, the expertise, the wisdom, the foresight, the leadership abilities to be able to undertake this piece of work and for us it was a no brainer to support them,” Allan said.
“We want that legacy of the beautiful red bloom of the pōhutukawa in the summer, we want that to be there for our mokopuna, so to be active agents and participants in the solutions for this is really meaningful for us,” Ngata said.
Both the East Coast group and Scion are now calling for funded surveillance in more parts of the country, to give taonga the best chance of survival.