Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: November 2014

Chapter 11 - Freshwaters in New Zealand



Freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand have been under considerable stress since European colonisation. In the past 150 years the draining of 90% of wetlands and the removal of a similar amount of indigenous vegetation has placed much strain on the health of freshwaters through the loss of the crucial hydrologic and biological functions performed by intact wetland and forest ecosystems. This loss has been exacerbated by the more recent intensification of farming with the concomitant addition of excess nutrients and sediment to water as well as the effects of urbanisation and introductions of exotic fish species. The cumulative impacts of all these changes can be seen with declining water chemistry measures and the biological status of freshwater ecosystems. The most obvious impacts are revealed by biological indicators with 68% of the native freshwater fish species listed as threatened, and 90% of lowland waterways failing bathing standards. Lowland lakes are under immense pressure; 44% of monitored lakes are eutrophic or worse and they are mostly the lowland lakes. The legislative response from central and local government to the obvious declines has failed to halt or even reduce the deterioration. In contrast, government initiatives to increase farming intensification mean there is little or no chance of improvement in the future for New Zealand freshwaters.


Over the past century, New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems have undergone significant and obvious deterioration, both chemically and ecologically. The decline is revealed in a multitude of ways, including severe reductions in biodiversity and aesthetic values corroborated by declining physicochemical measures taken at most lowland waterways (Larned et al. 2004). One of the starkest indications of the extent of the deterioration is the fact that New Zealand now has proportionally more threatened freshwater fish species than almost any country globally (Allibone et al. 2010; IUCN 2010). While in global terms the freshwater declines in New Zealand are relatively recent, they mirror declines worldwide where the symptoms and drivers of deterioration are similar but have occurred over much longer time periods. The primary driver of decline has been the unrestrained agricultural intensification (Williams 2004) with attendant increases in nutrient and sediment entering lakes, rivers and groundwater and to a lesser extent from the numerous impacts of urbanisation.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Allan, J. D. and Flecker, A. S.. 1993. Biodiversity conservation in running waters. BioScience 43:32–43.
Allibone, R., David, B., Hitchmough, R., et al. 2010. Conservation status of New Zealand freshwater fish, 2009. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 44:271–287.
Ball, A. 2006. Estimation of the Burden of Water-borne Disease in New Zealand: Preliminary Report. Prepared as part of a Ministry of Health Contract for scientific services by ESR, Wellington.
Ballantine, D. J. and Davies-Colley, R. J.. 2010. Water Quality Trends at NRWQN Sites for the Period 1989–2007. National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research Ltd.
Baskaran, R., Cullen, R., and Colombo, R.. 2009. Estimating values of environmental impacts of dairy farming in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research 52:377–389.
Benjamini, Y. and Hochberg, Y.. 1995. Controlling the false discovery rate – a practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series B – Methodological 57:289–300.
Bradshaw, C. J. A., Giam, X., and Sodhi, N. S.. 2010. Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries. PLoS ONE 5:1–16.
Clapcott, J. and Young, R. G.. 2009. Temporal Variability in Ecosystem Metabolism of Rivers in the Manawatu–Wanganui Region. Cawthron Institude.
Daughney, C. J. and Wall, M.. 2007. Groundwater Quality in New Zealand: State and Trends 1995–2006. GNS Science Consultancy Report 2007/23.
Hitchmough, R. 2002. New Zealand Threat Classification System Lists. Department of Conservation, Wellington.
Hitchmough, R. and Cromarty, P.. 2007. New Zealand Threat Classification System lists.
IUCN. 2010. Redlist. .
Joy, M. K. 2009. Temporal and Land-cover Trends in Freshwater Fish Communities in New Zealand’s Rivers: An Analysis of Data from the New Zealand Freshwater Database – 1970–2007. A report to the Ministry for the Ministry for the Environment. Massey University.
Joy, M. K. 2012. Water quality. Chapter 2 in World Wildlife Fund, Beyond Rio: New Zealand’s Environmental Record Since the Original Earth Summit. World Wildlife Fund Wellington.
Joy, M. K. and Atkinson, N. K.. 2012. Salmonids and Native Fish in New Zealand; Are Trout to Blame for the Decline in Native Fish? A report prepared for Fish and Game New Zealand; Wairesearch Ltd., Wellington.
Joy, M. K. and Death, R. G.. 2001. Control of freshwater fish and crayfish community structure in Taranaki, New Zealand: dams, diodromy or habitat structure?Freshwater Biology, 46(3),417–429.
Joy, M. K. and Death, R. G.. 2004. Application of the index of biotic integrity methodology to New Zealand freshwater fish communities. Environmental Management 34:415–428.
Joy, M. K. and Death, R. G.. 2013. Freshwater biodiversity. In Dymond, J., editor. Ecosystem Services in New Zealand. Landcare Research, Palmerston North.
Joy, M. K., Henderson, I. M., and Death, R. G.. 2000. Diadromy and longitudinal patterns of upstream penetration of freshwater fish in Taranaki, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 34:531–543.
Larned, S. T., Scarsbrook, M. R., Snelder, T. H., Norton, N. J., and Biggs, B. J. F.. 2004. Water quality in low-elevation streams and rivers of New Zealand: recent state and trends in contrasting land-cover classes. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 38:347–366.
Ling, N. 2010. Socio-economic drivers of freshwater fish declines in a changing climate: a New Zealand perspective. Journal of Fish Biology 77:1983–1992.
McDowall, R. M. 1990. New Zealand Freshwater Fishes: A Natural History and Guide. Heinemann Reed, Auckland.
McDowall, R. M. 2000. The Reed Field Guide to New Zealand Freshwater Fishes. Reed
McEwan, A. J. and Joy, M. K.. 2011. Monitoring a New Zealand freshwater fish community using passive integrated transponder (PIT) technology; lessons learned and recommendations for future use. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 45:121–133.
McEwan, A. J. and Joy, M. K.. 2014. Habitat use of redfin bullies (Gobiomorphus huttoni) in a small upland stream in Manawatu, New Zealand. Environmental Biology of Fishes 97:121–132.
Nelson, T. 1996. Closing the nutrient loop. World Watch; Volume 9: Issue 3.
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. 2010. How clean are our rivers? Water and Atmosphere. Issue 1, July.
Ormerod, S. J., Dobson, M., Hildrew, A. G., and Townsend, C. R.. 2010. Multiple stressors in freshwater ecosystems. Freshwater Biology, 55(s1) 1–4.
Quinn, J. M. and Stroud, M. J.. 2002. Water quality and sediment and nutrient export from New Zealand hill-land catchments of contrasting land use. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 36:409–429.
Richardson, J. 1989. The all-new freshwater fish database. Freshwater Catch 41:20–21.
RMA (Resource Management Act) 1991.
Sinner, J. 2011. Implications of the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, Prepared for Fish & Game New Zealand., Cawthron Report No. 1965, Nelson.
Snelder, T. H., Cattaneo, F., Suren, A. M., and Biggs, B. J. E.. 2004. Is the River Environment Classification an improved landscape-scale classification of rivers?Journal of the North American Benthological Society 23:580–598.
Townsend, A. J., de Lange, P. J., Duffy, C. A. J., et al. 2008. New Zealand Threat Classification System Manual. Report , Department of Conservation, Wellington.
UN Conference 1992. Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3–14 June 1992.
Verburg, P., Hamill, K., Unwin, M., and Abell, J.. 2010. Lake Water Quality in New Zealand 2010: Status and Trends. NIWA.
Waikato-Tainui, . 2010. Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010 No 24.
Waikato Regional Council. 2008. The Condition of Rural Water and Soil in the Waikato Region; Risks and Opportunities. Waikato Regional Council, Hamilton.
Williams, M. 2004. Growing for Good, Intensive Farming, Sustainability and New Zealand’s Environment. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
Wright, J. 2007. Dairy Farming Impact on Water Quantity and Quality; Briefing to the Primary Production Committee. Wellington