By Rosemary Miller
The Department of Conservation’s (DOC) vision is to foster a healthy, functioning environment today and for future generations. This includes New Zealand freshwaters. So where does DOC fit into the overall picture of water governance in New Zealand?
Firstly, DOC has specific freshwater functions as set out in the Conservation Act Legislation:
- To preserve so far as is practicable all indigenous freshwater fisheries, and protect recreational freshwater fisheries and freshwater fish habitats (6ab);
- To advocate the conservation of aquatic life and freshwater fisheries generally S53(3); and
- Various sections relating to recreational fish responsibilities.
In addition, the Department’s Statement of Intent sets out several goals:
- To conserve a full range of New Zealand’s ecosystems to a healthy functioning state;
- To conserve nationally threatened species to ensure persistence;
- To maintain or restore as partnerships locally treasured natural heritage; and
- To hold public conservation lands, waters and species for now and future generations. This would cover the management of public conservation lands, many were set aside originally specifically for the purposes of water or soil conservation.
The New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy (2000) further requires DOC to either lead or be involved in various actions, such as protecting a full range of remaining natural freshwater ecosystems and habitats to conserve indigenous freshwater biodiversity.
We know that freshwater ecosystems provide valuable ‘ecosystem services’ such as the provision of good quality water or managing the quantity of water. Wetlands filter water and mitigate the damaging impacts of floods. For example, Te Papanui Conservation Area in Otago provides high quality water to Dunedin City and other water users in the region that would otherwise cost $11m per year. Also, Whangamarino wetland forms part of the flood control scheme in the Waikato, reducing the cost of stopbanks downstream.
Increasingly, the science challenge for DOC is to demonstrate the economic value of healthy ecosystems and the ecosystem services derived from the land it manages. The management of public conservation areas secures ecosystem services like protection from flooding, erosion, and ensures abundant sources of clean water. Losing these services would have massive financial implications for the country. However, our ability to quantify those ecosystem services, and the difference that management of public conservation land makes to those services, is still in its infancy. For example, we have not yet attempted to quantify the difference that pest control makes on water quality of water leaving public conservation land.
However, freshwater biodiversity values most under pressure are not on public conservation land. Therefore to achieve freshwater biodiversity conservation, DOC must participate in freshwater planning processes. This includes:
- Providing technical and scientific information to inform identification of values and the setting of objectives;
- Bringing specialist expertise to planning forums where not otherwise provided;
Working closely with applicants in the development phase of consent or plan applications to find innovative ways to address issues;
- Seeking decisions that are informed by commonly agreed science that set environmental limits in order to achieve freshwater biodiversity objectives; and
- Providing input to the development of freshwater policy by working closely with MPI and MFE.
These challenges are not insignificant. Flow regime requirements for the whole suite of threatened fish species is one area of science research that we have really only scratched the surface of, particularly when one considers flow requirements for different life stages of individual fish species.
DOC works closely with others to progress freshwater biodiversity conservation, including local government, MPI, MFE, commercial businesses, NGOs and community groups. For example, work on didymo has been undertaken in partnership with local government and MPI. The Department’s work on pest fish (survey, control and monitoring) is another example of working in partnership with local communities.
Finally, and significantly, the Department is well placed to work with iwi on freshwater biodiversity matters that are of concern to iwi and has MOUs and protocols through settlements with Treaty Partners.
Rosemary Miller manages the Freshwater Team in the Science and Technical Unit of the Department of Conservation.