Grappling with the octopus

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This year, the book that won New Zealand’s richest literary prize, the $60,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, was in fact two stories woven together. It’s called Kurangaituku. One cover is light. The other is dark. You choose which side to start reading from but either way, they meet in the middle.

Here’s the really cool thing: this new sort of novel, this hybrid, is about a hybrid, too: Kurangaituku, the magnificent, terrible bird-woman much maligned by boiled-down versions of a pūrākau, legend. (She ends up cooked in a thermal pool by brave warrior Hatupatu.)

Whiti Hereaka spent 10 years enthralled by Kura, writing and rewriting a richer version of the story. She dressed as the bird-woman herself for the award ceremony—wicked neon and black makeup, ostrich-feather wings. A champion of hybrids. Judging by Bill Morris’s story, they could do with one.

Some of the most pressing science stories today seem simple but turn out to be, like Kura’s, a tangle of perspectives and interests. Trying to pin them down is like grappling with an octopus. Kate Evans was up against one of these when she decided to write about the future of trawling. It’s not nearly as simple as “we should just stop”. But we can’t keep decimating the seafloor, either—not least because, as we’re learning, trawling messes with the ocean’s carbon cycle.

If Hereaka’s a champion of hybrids, Karl Warr is a champion of our seas. He trawls, but on a small scale, and he winces every time. He’s also deeply sceptical of the new net set-up touted by Big Fishing as the sustainable way forward. So he’s come up with his own—and it seems to be working better. How does this story end? Cliffhanger: Warr needs an injection of funding and support to progress his project. Meanwhile, the fishing industry, with millions of public dollars in tow, is pressing on with incremental changes to its own net.

“The tūī sings a different song to that of the kākā,” Hereaka writes in Kurangaituku. “But both sing the truth.” It’s not true, though, that there are two sides to every story. Sometimes there is one clear and obvious reality and to pretend otherwise is to obfuscate. This is why most journalists no longer give precious newsprint or airtime to climate-change deniers. It’s why New Zealand Geographic makes no bones about issues such as ecological collapse in the Hauraki Gulf, and the urgent need to protect the crayfish that could bring things back into balance.

In October, we ventured out of the fourth estate and into the High Court as part of a group arguing that a ministerial decision about crayfish quota in Northland was based on advice that was “inaccurate, misleading, and unsupported by peer-reviewed and published literature”. We won.

Ten years ago, I’d have fretted about journalistic ethics—we’re meant to stand on the sidelines, not actually get things done—but now I’m just very proud to work here, and relieved that good science still matters. As do our stories.