Wetlands perform under-appreciated yet vital role; NRC

4 Feb 2019, 2:12 PM

Northlanders are being urged to rethink the value placed on wetlands which serve often underappreciated – but crucial environmental – roles, including filtering, absorbing and storing excess rain and floodwaters for dry periods.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated every February 02 to mark the adoption in 1971 of the Convention on Wetlands in Ramsar, Iran, however, the Northland Regional Council says wetlands play a crucial environmental role every day.

People hunting for rare Northland mudfish in a small area of gumland wetland.Hunting for rare Northland mudfish in a small area of gumland wetland behind Kerikeri’s Bay of Islands Airport. Wetlands like these serve crucial environmental roles, including filtering, absorbing and storing excess rain and floodwaters for dry periods.

Council chairman Bill Shepherd says healthy wetlands are effectively the environment’s kidneys, filtering rain – including from floods – and storing it, a valuable attribute made even more so during dry periods like the one currently impacting the region.

“Climate change means extreme weather events like droughts, storms and floods are on the increase which will makes our wetlands even more important to us in the future. Wetlands also help fight climate change because they store carbon better than any other habitat on the planet.”

The council’s Biodiversity Manager Lisa Forester says historically, more than a fifth of the region was covered in wetlands, including vast swamps and gumland heaths extending from the edges of the Kaipara Harbour in the south, all the way to Spirits Bay in the north.

“Unfortunately, less than 5.5 percent of our original wetlands remain, roughly half the national average.”

Chairman Shepherd says the regional council does a vast amount of work in the wetlands area, including its Top Wetlands Project, a database which has seen the ranking and prioritisation of around 1000 Northland wetlands (although there are many others that haven’t been recorded.

“Council has contacted the landowners of the more than 150 of our highest ranked wetlands (about 600 landowners) and we’re working with them via Biodiversity Plans and funding assistance for fencing and protection including covenants where possible.”

Ms Forester says 87 wetland enhancement projects have been completed from 2014-2018 (to which the regional council had contributed $389,000 funding) with a further 24 projects currently underway.

Last year 21 wetlands had received funding for fencing and protection and the council aims to target 25 wetlands annually for assessment of any fencing needs and associated follow up.

On the monitoring front, she says ‘Wetland Condition Index Monitoring’ (using national methodology) is done at 27 wetlands already fenced under its Environment Fund.

“Monitoring began in 2011 and this summer is in its third cycle. Pleasingly, nearly all the degraded wetlands we’re monitoring have improved their score, while those which were already in good condition have remained stable or improved.”

She says Northland’s wetland owners – farmers, iwi and small block owners – care deeply about their wetlands and the results are a testament to this.

“This is not just through fencing but with pest and weed control in most cases Wetland owners often come and help with the monitoring and get pretty excited when they see the condition scores improving.”

Ms Forester says Northland is home to nearly all New Zealand’s remaining viable nationally endangered gumlands/wet heathlands.

“A mapping project capturing remaining wet heathlands has been done and will help with the application of new Proposed Regional Plan rules developed to prevent further loss of these endangered habitats.”

Meanwhile, Chairman Shepherd says the regional council also carries out a range of biosecurity work on freshwater/wetland weeds and pest fish including surveillance, delimitation, survey and eradication.

It also carries out active control work on pest species like koi carp and responds to reports of others in the wild, including red-eared slider turtles and water dragons.

“And while undertaking threatened species work isn’t one of our key programmes, council is involved in work that benefits rare species which live in our wetlands, including bittern, nationally critical native bladderwort (support research), Omapere quillwort, dune lakes galaxias research and tuna (eels) etc.”

Both Chairman Shepherd and Ms Forester are hopeful this year’s World Wetlands Day will be a catalyst prompting more Northlanders to think about the key role wetlands play and what they can do personally to protect and enhance them.

Man holding a mudfish in a bag of water.A Northland mudfish caught during a monitoring expedition in gumland wetland in the Kerikeri area behind Bay of Islands Airport.