World Wetlands Day 1999 in New Zealand: 2

17/02/1999

Activities reported for World Wetlands Day 1999

Southland Times feature for wetland week (Feb 1/7)

Recreational use of wetlands for whitebaiting, fishing, waterfowl hunting and simple enjoyment of free access to wild places is a long established tradition of the Southland community. Whitebait stands, favourite fishing spots and hunting sites on public lands have been handed down for several generations with some families able to boast nearly a century of uninterrupted enjoyment of special places. In 1976 Southland was the first place in the world to have a wetland officially recognised under the Ramsar Convention. Now, over 20 years later, Southland is again leading the battle to save remaining wetlands for future generations.

Department of Conservation Public Awareness Coordinator Tom O’Connor outlines a history of wetland loss and a plan to extend Southland’s wetland protection.

Southland will soon have the largest area of internationally recognised protected wetland in New Zealand.

New Zealand has five wetlands registered under the Ramsar Convention of 1971, including 3500 hectare of Waituna peatland area, known as the Waituna Wetland Scientific Reserve. A proposal by the Department of Conservation will extend the registration by 20,000 hectares of Crown-owned wetlands and estuarine areas.

In 1971 New Zealand joined other nations at a convention in Ramsar, in

Iraq, to formulate plans for the protection of the world’s wetlands from over exploitation. At that time the world’s remaining wetlands were fast disappearing under an ever-increasing demand for agricultural land and industrial sites. Underdeveloped nations in particular were draining or over-exploiting wetlands at an alarming rate without realising that the ecosystems they relied on for freshwater and natural resources were disappearing with them.

In New Zealand wetlands were also under serious pressure. Many areas which had not been drained had been irreversibly modified by introduced plants and wildlife, many of which were more aggressive and successful than the native species they replaced. English willows quickly replaced native wetland species over most of the country but, in Southland, the introduced gorse invaded wetlands, displacing large areas of manuka, flax and tussocks. Two generations of New Zealanders cannot imagine a river or swamp with out willows and gorse today. They have no memory of pristine native swamp plant communities.

Farming, which turned thousands of hectares of wetlands into pasture as our primary production became the envy of the British Empire, also polluted the remainder with the cleanings from thousands of cowsheds and pig sties until quite recently when controls were placed on effluent quality. As recently as the 1970s the New Zealand pioneering spirit was still alive and thriving on new challenges. With most of the native forests gone to timber mills and chip manufacture, the nation turned its attention to once vast and unique swamp and river systems. In those days wetlands were still officially listed in many regions as wasteland. Provincial land drainage boards spent vast sums of money draining swamps and building extensive stop bank complexes to keep river system to artificially designated river beds.

By then about 90 percent of North Island and over 60 percent of South Island original wetlands had gone forever. With them went a number of wildlife species found nowhere else in the world. At least one freshwater fish, the New Zealand grayling, is now extinct and several wetland birds are endangered through habitat loss.

Important changes in thinking were however starting to have an effect. In 1976, just five years after the Ramsar meeting, 3500 hectares of the once extensive Waituna peat swamps became the first wetlands in the world to be registered under what became known as the Ramsar Convention. This area is home to the secretive Australasian bittern and the tiny fernbird. Both species have disappeared from much of their former range.

In the days before the Resource Management Act and the Conservation Act, a Ramsar Convention recognition was an important protection mechanism. It now has a similar status to the World Heritage Site recognition recently given to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. Now 114 nations from around the world have joined the cause to protect rapidly disappearing wetlands.

Nearly two years ago the Department of Conservation initiated a plan to add around 20,000 hectares of wetlands to the Waituna Ramsar site. The additions will include the three major estuaries; Toe Toe, Awarua Bay and the New River. These three estuaries are a unique feature of Southland and are still relatively unspoiled compared to similar waterways in other parts of the country. Just over 10,000 hectares of the Awarua peat complex and areas of cushion bog, usually only found in subalpine regions, will also be included.

The proposal was first met with opposition by groups who feared recreational activities, such as whitebaiting and duck hunting, would be restricted. However sustainable uses of the wetlands for recreation are included in the recognition application. In the long term the department also has plans for a walkway into parts of the Waituna peatlands for ease of access and to avoid damage to the delicate ecology of the area from heavy foot traffic.

Local authorities, iwi and members of the public all made extensive submissions which have been included in the final application which will then be re-submitted to local authorities and the community before being forwarded to the Minister of Conservation for approval.

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