Freshwater Values

New Zealand’s freshwater bodies have enormous value for a wide range of reasons including:

  • Ecosystem health
  • Human health for recreation
  • Natural form and character
  • Mahinga kai
  • Fishing
  • Irrigation and food production
  • Animal drinking water
  • Wahi tapu
  • Water supply
  • Commercial and industrial use
  • Hydro-electric power generation
  • Transport and tauranga waka

Intrinsic values

The intrinsic values of freshwater bodies are largely based on their ability to sustain ecosystem health and the rare and threatened species that live in them. These aquatic ecological systems are linked to bordering terrestrial vegetation and the marine area because of the movement of species between these areas during their life cycles. Maintaining sufficient instream flows, water quality and habitat to sustain the full range of aquatic life within freshwater ecosystems is therefore important. Maintaining viable linkages between aquatic and terrestrial habitats is also important for the overall sustainability of the system.

Freshwater ecosystems are home to many endemic New Zealand species, whose continued survival relies on sensitive and appropriate freshwater management. The intrinsic value of these habitats and species also gives rise to some of the cultural and recreational value of wetlands, whether through providing both kai and cultural meaning for Māori or through the underpinning of eco-tourism and nature-based recreation.

Māori cultural values

Water is a fundamental taonga for Māori, relationships to water underpin and maintain cultural identity. The Māori creation myth explains its existence – Ranginui and Papatuanuku were the sky father and the earth mother. They lay locked in a tight embrace, and their children were forced to live in the cramped dark space between them. Having discussed what it would be like to live in the light, their children decided to separate them. While Ranginui remained in the sky Papatuanuku was pushed to the ground. Ranginui remained in the sky Papatuanuku was pushed to the ground. Ranginui’s tears for his lost wife are the rain that falls to earth. In time water returns to the heavens through evaporation and mist– this Papatuanuku’s tears for Ranginui. Waterways are considered to be the arteries of Papatuanuku. 2002

In Māori culture everything has a life force sustained by water, which is the source of life. Water has an inherent mauri, or life essence, and this mauri must be healthy to enable the water to sustain healthy ecosystems and support cultural and spiritual uses. Consequently, Te Ao Māori worldview includes great respect for water. Traditionally when water was collected, karakia or prayers were given. Water is used for ceremonial and ritual purposes and in some areas river were used to demarcate boundaries between adjacent hapū. 2003

Specific water bodies shave particular significance for iwi and hapū. Some rivers are considered tipuna awa (river ancestors) and are sometimes home to taniwha which appear in the form of eels or other freshwater species, and can also be the embodiment of tipuna (ancestors) of the current generation. It is traditional at a gathering for Māori to present pepehā which include whakapapa (ancestral ties) and links with specific geographical features including maunga (mountains) and awa (rivers). 2004

Rivers, lakes and wetlands are an important location for mahinga kai (food gathering area). Fish and shellfish were a very important part of traditional Māori diet and participation in harvesting practices enables traditions to be maintained and cultural wellbeing to be sustained on many levels including the metaphysical. The mana of a marae is increased if visitors are provided with food sourced from local mahinga kai. Eels in particular are a taonga, being important for hui, tangi and gift exchanges. Māori also harvested a wide range of other species.

Māori regulated fresh water and fresh water fishers through kaitiaki and tohunga, whanau and hapu as vital resources for pā and kāinga. What developed was a complex system of management including the use of rāhui or temporary restriction and tapu for more permanent bans on the use of a water resource. Many iwi have proverbs about the unity of people and water. For example in the Whanganui area there is a saying ‘ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’ (I am the river and the river is me).

Water formed part of an undivided entity whereby iwi did not distinguish between lakes, lagoons, rivers, swamps, their associated beds or the adjoining land. Māori land was not restricted to the waters edge but extended to the bed of the water body.

Waters were also ranked. From the sacred puna wai to the water in common use, wai māori and those of very limited use such as wai kino. Water and identity are intimately linked. For Māori certain things are believed to have or could be imbued with a mauri, or life essence, and water or water bodies were believed to have a mauri of its own. Water with a healthy mauri will sustain healthy ecosystems and support cultural uses.

Mahinga kai was pertinent to the survival of iwi. They depended upon the knowledge of mahinga kai and participation in gathering from mahinga kai was important for maintaining traditional practices. It was also important that water quantity and quality was maintained as they impacted on these cultural values and traditional knowledge and practice.

Source: Wai Māori, 2008. Discussion on freshwater: A wai Māori perspective.

The strong cultural and spiritual links with the country’s water bodies which Māori have developed over may generations, and their embodiment as ancestors, mean that there is a close bond between iwi, hapu and their local water bodies that has been hard for European sensibilities to fully understand. Thus historian Ann Parsonson has identified that ‘for Waikato Tainui, one of the greatest impacts of the confiscations in respect of the river has been the removal of their capacity to protect the river in the decades of rapid change that followed. Their authority and their tikanga were ignored, as if they had not existed for hundreds of years. As mining, farming, sewage disposal and hydro electricity development all took their toll on the health of the river, Waikato Tainui were not consulted.’4

As well as being of cultural significance, water is of considerable economic value to Maori. Key sector for Maori-owned business include agriculture, forestry and tourism which all rely on the freshwater resource.

Recent amendments to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (2017) have strengthened the relationship of Māori to freshwater through the introduction of the concept of ‘Te Mana o te Wai’ as a matter for national significance.  According to the NPS-FM “Te Mana o te Wai is the integrated and holistic well-being of a freshwater body.  Upholding Te Mana o te Wai acknowledges and protects the mauri of the water. This requires that in using water you must also provide for Te Hauora o te Taiao (the health of the environment), Te Hauora o te Wai (the health of the waterbody) and Te Hauora o te Tangata (the health of the people).  Te Mana o te Wai incorporates the values of tangata whenua and the wider community in relation to each water body.”

Spiritual, historic and cultural values

Numerous settlements in New Zealand are located on the banks of rivers or lakes, and as a result, many New Zealanders have grown up closely associated with freshwater bodies. Family camping, fishing and bach holidays are often associated with rivers and lakes as is also the case for the coast. These natural systems can therefore form a strong component of what attaches people to a particular locality. Freshwater makes a significant contribution to ‘sense of place’. Lakes and rivers are also strongly reflected in New Zealand art and literature, indicating their important role in national cultural life.

Landscape, natural character and amenity values

Water bodies such as lakes, rivers and wetlands are important elements of natural landscapes in New Zealand and contribute significantly to landscape, natural character and amenity values. The presence of water, along with naturalness (lack of human impact) and relief (hills, mountains and cliffs), are consistently identified in New Zealand and international research as important elements of landscapes which are highly valued by a wide range of people.5

There have been several studies of the landscape values of rivers in New Zealand. Each river is valued by local residents for slightly different attributes. For example, in the Clutha district it is the dramatic relief, rocky outcrops and dynamic movement of the main rivers which are highly valued. In the Lower Waitaki it is the river as a landscape feature and as a location for recreational activities which is valued. In the Lees valley it is the broad open basin landscape with views, scenery, remoteness and indigenous vegetation which is important.6 Often it is the broader landscape of which the river is a part, including indigenous vegetation along the banks and vistas, which are more significant to people than the individual characteristics of the river itself.7

Many lakes also have very high landscape and natural character values. These are associated with elements such as their natural shape, movement of water, patterns and reflections on the water, juxtaposition with surrounding land forms, presence of wildlife and historical associations with the area. Lakes modified by human activity, such as the Taupo, Coleridge, Tekapo, Pukaki and Manapouri hydro lakes, can still retain very high levels of natural character.


New Zealand’s clean, green image (which is in part due to its relatively clean rivers and lakes) attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, many of whom come to take part in a multitude of water-based recreation activities. The tourism industry contributed over $21 billion to the New Zealand economy during the year ended March 2009 and provided over 16 per cent of the country’s total export earnings.

The annual international tourism survey indicates that international tourists are involved in many water related activities. During 2009 over 165,000 international tourists participated in canoeing, kayaking and rafting, over 100,000 in fishing, over 121,000 in swimming, over 600,000 in boating and over 600,000 visited volcanic and geothermal attractions.9 Although these figures include activities undertaken in the sea as well as in lakes and rivers, they nevertheless indicate that water is a significant drawcard for the tourism industry.

Water supply

It is clear that New Zealand’s freshwater resources are extremely valuable to the New Zealand economy as providing water supply for a range of uses. However, the precise value is unknown. There have been several attempts to put a value on water supply, but these need to be treated with caution, as they do not encompass all values.

A study by the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences provided estimates for the value of water in various uses, although the importance and reliability of their findings was constrained by significant limitations in the data available. The study found that the combined value for domestic use of the 100 surface water catchments of largest value and the 100 groundwater aquifers of largest value was $499 million per year. The value of the water used for stock was $9 million per year (on the basis of data from the 20 catchments of largest value), and water used for industrial purposes was valued at $34,215 million per year.10 In addition, a separate study by Harris and Skilton (2007) estimated that the value of water used for irrigation in highly allocated regions is $127 million per year.

Energy generation

Hydroelectric generation is crucially important to New Zealand contributing around 55 percent of New Zealand’s total electricity supply. The most important hydro lakes are Tekapo, Pukaki, Hawea, Manapouri and Te Anau in the South Island and Lake Taupo in the North Island. Geothermal energy generation contributes another six percent of total electricity supply.

Commercial fisheries

There is a significant commercial fishery in longfin and shortfin eels. The eels are processed in New Zealand and then exported to markets in Europe and Asia. Catches peaked in 1975 when 2,434 tonnes were harvested and processed by 35 factories. They have declined significantly since then and now less than 700 tonnes of eel are commercially harvested each year. Only two processing plants now operate in the North Island (at Te Kauwhata and Levin) and there are two licensed fish receivers in the South Island. Eel exports totalled over $6 million during the 2006-07 year.

River mouths and estuaries are also important habitat for some commercially caught species. There is a well-established set net fishery for yellow-eyed mullet and flatfish (which includes black flounder). Yellow-eyed mullet is a marine fish but sometimes moves upstream into low-lying rivers and brackish lakes.

The black flounder is the only flatfish species in the New Zealand which spends most of its life in freshwater. Little is known about the life cycle of this endemic species. Black flounder larvae are found in the sea and then migrate into river estuaries to grow. Individuals have been found up to 100 kilometres inland where the river gradient is low. Black flounder is mainly harvested from lakes Wairarapa, Onoke (Ferry) and Ellesmere.

Introduced species of catfish and koi are harvested commercially, mainly as a bycatch of the eel fishery. Some freshwater fish are harvested for the aquarium trade including bullies and torrentfish. Freshwater shrimps are also sold for use in aquariums and as food for large ornamental fish. Some freshwater inverterbrates are harvested and sold to pet shops to feed aquarium fish. 

The introduced species silver and grass carp are used for the biological control of unwanted algae and aquatic plants. Grass carp farming is producing stock for weed control and also for the restaurant trade. Watercress is harvested as an important food source for Māori and some is sold in specialised food outlets. A few large facilities area also cultivate water cress for human consumption. 

There is a sizeable industry in farming freshwater fish. Several fish farms are licensed to farm species comprising whitebait. They are taken from the wild as juveniles, and in one case raised to adults and sold to pet shops or other fish farms. Whitebait are sold commercially as a delicacy, although the fishery is still considered largely ‘recreational’.  Goldfish farming is also a significant activity. Koura farming is now established and supplies up-market restaurants. There is a large prawn farm at Wairakei. 16 Several salmon farm operations are located in the Waitaki power scheme canals.

Recreational activities

New Zealanders spend a significant amount of time enjoying the freshwater resources that the country has to offer, so that freshwater resources may offer values to New Zealanders of health and wellbeing that are not easily quantifiable. In a 2004 survey, 79 per cent of New Zealanders identified themselves as recreational users of freshwater, and a wide variety of recreational activities involving freshwater are pursued across the country, including jet boating, fishing, swimming and bird watching.

In 2004 the Ministry for the Environment identified 105 water bodies of potential national importance for recreational activities, including 54 rivers, 30 lakes and 21 wetlands. The study found that, in particular, these lakes and rivers were important for fishing, whitebaiting, walking and tramping, sightseeing, picknicking, canoeing, wakeboarding, swimming, jet skiing, diving, yachting, bird watching, waka ama paddling, rowing, windsurfing, and jet boating. Wetlands were popular with the public for walkers, bird watchers and environmental education.18 In 2007/2008 the most popular recreational activities in New Zealand were fishing and swimming. A national survey found that in any one month, 197,671 people swam ‘outdoors, in or by a beach, river, lake or the sea.'


Over 12 months (2007-2008) 5.7 per cent of New Zealanders participated in freshwater fishing, making it 21st equal in rankings of most popular sports during 2007/2008. New Zealanders fish both for sport and for food. Sport fishing is mainly focussed on trout and salmon, which were introduced to New Zealand by early European settlers. Specifically, brown trout (Salmo trutta) from England and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and salmon from North America were released. At first the trout thrived, but once they had eaten the small native species their numbers began to decline. Restocking and the introduction of smelt to the fisheries have restored stocks, and tourists come from all over the world to fish for them.

Rivers in the Nelson-Westland region such as the Wangapeka, the Buller and the Grey, amongst many others, are all popular sites for tourists and locals hoping to catch a trophy trout. The increasing availability of private helicopter flights means that more and more rivers are accessible. Salmon fishing in New Zealand is based mainly on the east coast rivers of the South Island, such as the Rakaia, Rangitata and Waitaki as well as the Paringa, Taramaka and Hokitika in the west. The value of recreational fishing on a popular river can exceed $2 million a year.

Salmon in New Zealand are mainly Chinook (also known as Quinnat or King) salmon (Onchorhynchus tschawytcha). They are fished as they travel upstream to their spawning grounds from the sea, with the season running from December to March, peaking in February. Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) have only become established in the Te Anau catchment.


Boating of all types is popular on New Zealand’s waterways, from the tourist attraction of the steamship on Lake Wakatipu to sailing on Lake Taupo. New Zealand has a number of rowing facilities at places such as Lake Karapiro and Lake Ruataniwha. Canoeing and kayaking are also popular. Whitewater New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association) has 16 member clubs across New Zealand corresponding to over 800 active members, and there are many more who participate in canoe racing, dragon boating, whitewater rafting and waka ama paddling.

Jet boating is an activity which is particularly popular in New Zealand, at least partly because it is a Kiwi invention. The modern jet boat was invented in the 1950s by Bill Hamilton, who wanted to build a boat that could negotiate Canterbury’s shallow braided streams. Jet boating is now practised throughout New Zealand. Jet boats’ manoeuvrability and ability to go at high speeds over very shallow water allows people to access remote rivers that would otherwise be inaccessible. It has also become a popular tourist attraction. For example in Queenstown there are a number of operators offering a range of jet boating activities on rivers such as the Kawarau and Shotover, from short adventure rides to longer scenic trips. Jet boating clubs exist all over the country and it is estimated that there are around 6000 jet boaters in New Zealand.

Ecosystem services

As well as the more familiar provisioning and cultural services set out above, freshwater systems provide a wide range of very valuable environmental regulating services including the assimilation and metabolism of waste and the regulation of natural hazards.

Economists at Massey University have attempted to value the ecosystem services provided by New Zealand’s biodiversity. They derived a value of $44 billion for terrestrial biodiversity for the 1994 year. When comparing the value per hectare for different types of ecosystems, estuaries came out on top, closely followed by wetlands and then rivers and lakes. This indicates that New Zealand’s freshwater systems are extremely important in providing the country’s ecosystem services.

Wetlands are particularly significant in this regard. The ability of wetlands to absorb and contain large amounts of water can be extremely important for flood control, as they can absorb heavy rainfall, releasing it only gradually over time so that flooding is reduced. They also stabilise downstream water flow and groundwater levels in periods of low rainfall, by holding water, and ensuring that a steady flow is released.

Wetlands act as filters, cleaning water before it enters the downstream environment. As water enters a wetland, its rate of flow decreases, allowing particles to settle out. Plant surfaces provide for filtration, add oxygen to the water, and absorb solids. Nutrients can be reduced. Accordingly, when wetlands are drained or filled in, or where stopbanks are built alongside adjacent rivers, a catchment will lose some of its natural ability to cope with unusual patterns of precipitation and pollution.

Wetlands that are peat forming can also act as significant sinks for atmospheric carbon, with some bogs sequestering significant volumes of carbon in wet peats. It has been estimated that wetlands may store as much as 40 per cent of global terrestrial carbon. These carbon stores can be vulnerable to release, particularly where wetland management results in highly fluctuating water levels, or a permanent reduction in water levels. Conversely, well managed and stable peat forming wetlands can remain a store of carbon for extremely long periods of time.

  1. Grey G, 1956, Polynesian Mythology, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch (reprinted)

  2. Royal, Te Ahukaramu- Charles, ‘Tangaroa – the Sea – Water as the Source of Life’, Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand,

  3. Ministry of Fisheries, 2007, 26;

Last updated at 11:48AM on August 23, 2021