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The Department of Conservation’s role in water governance Waiology Mar 08

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By Rosemary Miller

WaterGovernanceWaiology2013The 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.

Ramsar wetlands in NZ: Why are they important and where are we going? Waiology Feb 05

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By Hugh Robertson

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is a global environmental treaty that “provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”. The Ramsar Convention was established in 1971, in the city of Ramsar, Iran.

Awarua wetland Ramsar site, Southland. Source: DOC.

New Zealand became a signatory to the Ramsar Convention in 1976, in the initial cohort of members. Nowadays, there are 164 countries committed to the Ramsar Convention – a truly international community.

A key focus of the convention is to designate Ramsar sites – wetlands of international importance, and more generally to improve the management of all wetland systems. Globally, there are over 2000 Ramsar wetlands, covering 204,700,000 hectares.

The same year NZ signed the convention, our first wetland became listed as one of international importance: Waituna Lagoon, Southland (3,556 ha). Since then a further five sites have been listed (Table 1). Waituna Lagoon has also expanded to form the broader Awarua wetlands Ramsar site of 18,900 ha, our largest Ramsar site.

The NZ sites are special. The mudflats of Farewell Spit, for example, support an immense biomass of invertebrates, birds and fish – with flow on benefits across Golden Bay (and wider). Waituna Lagoon is of high cultural significance and the Firth of Thames is a critical site for migratory species (Table 1). Recognising their Ramsar status also takes account of the ecosystem services that wetlands provide society, whether in the form of fisheries production, reducing flooding or tourism (PDF).

NZ Ramsar site Known for Area (ha) Date listed
Awarua wetlands, incl. Waituna Lagoon Extensive, intact peatlands, estuary, coastal lake. 18,900 1976
Farewell Spit Expansive mudflats and sandspit, high bird diversity, migratory species. 11,400 1976
Manawatu Estuary Important feeding ground for migratory species. 200 2005
Whangamarino wetland Very large raised peat dome/swamp complex. Australasian bittern stronghold. 5,900 1989
Kopuatai Peat Dome Largest raised peat dome in North Island, peat-forming Sporadanthus (rare bog plant). 10,200 1989
Firth of Thames Shell banks, tidal mud and sand flats offer extensive feeding for wading birds and waterfowl. 7,800 1990

*For more information, see the DOC website.

The global vision of the Ramsar list is to “develop and maintain an international network of wetlands which are important for the conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life”. To achieve this, the Ramsar Convention has published a strategy (PDF) that recommends the development of “national networks of Ramsar Sites… which fully represent the diversity of wetlands”.

In a NZ context, I am often asked what the value of Ramsar status is. A typical question is, “isn’t our effort better invested in improving catchment management, or developing a fully representative network of protected areas such as covenants and national parks?”

My response is that the value of Ramsar listing is to significantly increase the international and national awareness of our most ecologically significant wetland ecosystems. The long-term benefits of having elevated community and stakeholder awareness can be hard to predict, but should not be underestimated. Ramsar status may also lead to the investment of more resources from government agencies, NGOs, business partners, community groups and iwi. While Ramsar sites are not closely aligned with any particular legislation, all NZ Ramsar sites (with the exception of Manawatu Estuary) are listed in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act, and are therefore closed to mining.

The Department of Conservation has outlined future priorities for implementing the Ramsar Convention – including developing a more strategic approach to site nomination. Guidelines on what constitutes ‘internationally significant’ within a NZ context are in review.

Ramsar sites in waiting. Wetlands such as those within O Tu Wharekai (Ashburton Basin) may make complementary additions to the Ramsar network. Source: H. Robertson (DOC).

Once a site becomes a Ramsar wetland, maintaining their condition is a priority. DOC recently produced a national report summarising the condition of our six sites. Overall, there was little change in their ecological state over the past four years. Some wetlands showed improvement, for example through wide-scale invasive plant control, while others (Whangamarino, Waituna Lagoon) were under threat from declining water quality [1][2]. Initiatives such as the DOC Arawai Kakariki wetland restoration programme [3] and the efforts of community groups continue to help maintain these internationally significant ecosystems.

World Wetland Day provides an opportunity to recognise the successes of what Ramsar has achieved since 1971, and to reflect on both the positive and challenging issues relating to water management. For me, this includes recognition that New Zealand has come a long way since becoming a signatory to the Ramsar Convention in 1976, and an appreciation that 164 countries are able to reach agreement on global issues such as climate change and water (PDF) – yet recognising that many of our freshwater ecosystems remain under threat.

References:

[1] Blyth, J.M. (2011). Ecohydrological characterisation of Whangamarino wetland.Master of Science (MSc) Thesis, University of Waikato.

[2] Robertson H.A. and Funnell E.P. (2012). Aquatic plant dynamics of Waituna Lagoon, New Zealand: trade-offs in managing opening events of a Ramsar site. Wetlands Ecology and Management 20: 433-445.

[3] Robertson H. and Suggate R. (2011). Arawai Kakariki wetland restoration programme 2007-2010: Implementation report. Department of Conservation, Christchurch.


Dr Hugh Robertson is a wetland ecologist with the Department of Conservation. He is the STRP (Science and Technical) National Focal Point for the Ramsar Convention in NZ.

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