On the surface, Rotorua’s lakes glisten like jewels in the landscape – but in reality they are plagued by pests and poor water quality from years of pollution and irresponsible land use.
No-one cares more deeply about restoring the mauri (life force) of these lakes than Te Arawa. The tribe’s physical and spiritual connection to these lakes was formally recognised in the Te Arawa Lakes Settlement Act 2006, under which ownership of thirteen lake beds was vested to Te Arawa Lakes Trust (TALT).
Since then, their environmental team (Te Hunga Tiaki Taiao) has worked hard to create and restore wetlands around the lakes to reduce nutrient and sediment loads, and to remove aquatic pests like lagarosiphon, egeria, elodea and hornwort and terrestrial pest plants such as willows, gorse and blackberry.
Approximately 300-400ha of wetlands have been restored by TALT’s Hunga Tiaki Taiao team over the past two years but their goal is considerably larger – with an additional 1000ha being targeted in the next 10 years which will then be maintained by mana whenua.
Other aspirational goals include continuing to eradicate pests and increasing taonga species such as kākahi (freshwater mussels), kōura (freshwater crayfish), tuna (eels), morihana (goldfish), īnanga (whitebait) and kōaro.
Woven harakeke flax mats (called uwhi), have been placed on the bottom of several lakes to suppress weeds, allowing kōura to forage for food more easily.
TALT is also planning to build more tracks and boardwalks to increase public access to green spaces and most importantly, they want to see a reduction in nutrient levels in all lakes to improve water quality.
“In practice, the goal for Te Arawa Lakes Trust is ‘te mā o te wai e rite ana kia kite i ngā tapuwae ā te kōura’ – the quality of the water is such that you can see the footsteps of the kōura,” explains Sarah Wharekura, Te Hunga Tiaki Taiao – Environmental Officer for TALT.
These goals have just taken a big step forward with BayTrust’s decision to grant $600,000 in funding to TALT over the next three years to help restore the mauri of the lakes and promote the role of Te Arawa as hunga tiaki in their rohe.
Sarah says the money will allow TALT to double the efforts currently being made by their environmental team and expand into areas that they have previously not had resources for.
“It’s very exciting news. We are very grateful for the opportunity and can’t wait to start using these funds to make a difference on our lakes and for our people.”
Tools on TALT’s wishlist include a digital microscope to analyse algae and water samples; water quality, nitrogen and phosphorus meters; and sampling equipment such as nets, containers, fish traps, flow meters, tracking tunnels, and resources to store samples.
“We have had limited access to these tools through our partnerships with other agencies such as Department of Conservation and Bay of Plenty Regional Council. However, this funding will give us the opportunity to use these tools full-time, build up capacity in using these tools internally and allow us to capture consistent data over time.”
Water quality and pest monitoring will be done by selecting sites of cultural or ecological significance to Te Arawa in and around each lake. Each site will be sampled regularly and data will be analysed and uploaded to a shared online database to keep track of progress.
Pest animals such as rats, possums, stoats and wallabies will be targeted, all of which cause sediment loss to the lakes. “Pest animals will be trapped and killed, with approved poisons and firearms used in areas where approved. Pest fish such as brown bullhead catfish will also be trapped and killed,” Sarah explains.
In terms of new boardwalks, TALT plans to build new tracks around various lake edges to provide safe walkways and bike paths and encourage the public to enjoy these open spaces.
Investing In People
TALT is also passionate about building the capacity of Te Arawa people and local hapū to manage the lakes and take over the activities in their own rohe within a decade.
“TALT has gradually added to the capacity of Te Arawa in this area by providing employment, internships and training in biosecurity and conservation work,” Sarah says. “However, this funding allows us to gain momentum on this journey and provide our people with the necessary resourcing to increase capacity within hapū and whānau.”
Currently Ngāti Rangiteaorere are involved with the restoration of Te Pohue wetland; Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Tamateatutahi, Ngāti Kāwiti and Tūhourangi are involved in TALT’s uwhi project, Ngāti Rangiwewehi are helping restore Hamurana Springs’ riparian areas, Tapuika are doing restoration mahi at Makahae marae, and Ngāti Kea Ngāti Tuara are carrying out restoration at many of their wetlands and farm sites.
“Currently our environment team includes 22 staff members with whakapapa to various Te Arawa hapū including those referred to above. In future, we hope to see whānau from every hapū of Te Arawa able to get involved through various volunteering opportunities, wānanga, employment and by starting their own projects which we can provide support for.”