“We pretend it’s the jewel in the crown, but when we poke at it, it’s not really that flash.” Richard Munneke, Napier City Council.

On the fringe of Napier City sits one of the most significant estuarine environments on the east coast of the North Island – Te Whanganui a Orotu – known to many as Ahuriri Estuary, but more and more referred to simply asTe Whanga.

For thousands of years Te Whanga has been habitat to numerous migratory and resident birds, and the feeding and breeding grounds for many fish species. For Maori it was a treasured food resource.

With remarkable resilience, Te Whanga has withstood being ravaged by human intervention and abuse, to still provide food and shelter for birds and fish, although with prejudice, its waters are deemed too polluted for humans to feed from.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to ‘clean up’ the Estuary. None have succeeded. There is hope, however, with a new initiative. A statutory management committee has been formed with representation from all stakeholders, and Napier City Council have produced a draft ‘Masterplan’ for discussion (July 2017).

The guardian

Ngati Hineuru, kaumatua, and Mana Ahuriri Chairperson, Piri Prentice, were members of the Iwi negotiation team in the Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown.

“During the negotiations one of the things we highlighted was to ensure we had some stake, or some real play, in the way that Te Whanganui a Orutu was going to be managed.

“When you look at the history, and the state of the Estuary today, it’s polluted to hell. I don’t know what other way to put it. It’s polluted to hell. Te Whanga was the pantry for our people. It provided so much food resource. As an infant my grandparents would take us down to the Iron Pot before the boats were allowed in there, and the cockles were plentiful and beautiful.

“We had to negotiate with the Crown around how to sustain and manage Te Whanga as a part of the settlement. One thing the Crown didn’t want to do was get into the sort of negotiations they did with the Waikato River, which became a real bane for them in many ways, so initially they refused.

“We came up with a plan that we manage it in a way that forced the collaboration of key stakeholders to work together. We offered some management principles based on the way our old people grew kumara. In the key stages of growing kumara there would be assessment and evaluation, and you couldn’t progress in the process unless you tidied up the last bit. That’s the part we liked, and so did the Crown.

“Then we asked the negotiators that we bring all the stakeholders onto the Estuary for a day, the idea being that we could hear what each stakeholder was doing – sort of a stocktake of where things were at.

“There we were on the Estuary with all stakeholders. (Government representing the Crown, Napier City Council, Hastings District Council, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, Department of Conservation). We asked who was doing what, and when we finished, it was obvious to the Crown and everybody that no one knew what the others were doing. There was little collaboration or co-ordination. There may have been good intent, but it was going nowhere.

“In further negotiations it was agreed there should be a statutory management body for the estuary, and they (the stakeholders) mooted that Mana Ahuriri become the permanent chair of that body. We’ve just put together the personnel for the committee – stakeholders have put up their people – and we are in the process of putting it all together.

“I think we’re fortunate to have Wayne Jack (CEO) at the Napier City Council. He was directly involved in the clean up of Lake Macquarie (New South Wales, Australia). He brought to us documents and costings of how they cleaned up that estuary. It’s four times the size of ours, and was a worse mess. Now it’s pristine. They filter all the stormwater, and we can do the same.

“At the end of the day the winner must be the Estuary. I’m not worried about the political credits and debits for each of these stakeholders. The winner has to be the estuary. When stakeholders are looking for political credits it’s not going to work.

“The thinking has to be collaborative, thinking as one mind – he whakaaro kotahi – thinking as one mind for one purpose, to clean up Te Whanga.”

The politician

Neil Kirton is a former Member of Parliament. He currently sits on the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and is Business and Marketing Manager Hohepa Homes Trust Board.

“The history of the Estuary is really quite bleak in terms of neglect by our public officers right across the board. A solemn undertaking was made in the Management Plan (1992) to protect the Estuary, but from the day the document was produced, people looked the other way and the Estuary was abused instead.

“Napier City Council are the main protagonists.

“For two decades under the past administration they were both poacher and gamekeeper. As administrators of the District Plan they skewed the playing field in their own favour, resulting in catastrophe.

“They developed around 1,100 sections in the Parklands-Tamatea zone on very sensitive land. Contamination pollutants from rooves, washing cars, garden sprays all go into the storm water, and with no mitigation … flows straight into the estuary.

“They allowed tanneries, rendering, powder coating, right on the cusp of the Estuary. It’s a recipe for disaster.

“I’ve spoken to Stuart Nash and we’re calling for the immediate exit of all the heavy industry located in Tyneside-Pandora zone. We should never have had heavy industry in that zone.

“In April (2017) Napier City Council discharged their own raw sewage into the Estuary and we had people hospitalised from eating contaminated shellfish. If they could speak, there would be loud protest from the fish and birds about their contaminated food supplies. “I’m furious the Regional Council compliance people enabled that to take place.

“The current scenario is a testimony to the greed and intellectual desert that was part of the Napier City Council for two decades.

“Change of consciousness is no excuse. We’re talking about articulate, intelligent, and able people who had the opportunity to make change, but they chose not to for greedy, self-centered reasons. As a result you now have dilapidated services – for example, sewage and waste water systems unable to cope. They took over $50 million from subdivision sales, and chose to bank that rather than keep up with infrastructure (development and maintenance).

“With a change of CEO and many new councillors, there’s now a recognition that Ahuriri Estuary is a very important strategic asset, and Wayne Jack, to his credit, has experience in developing estuarine environments in Australia.

“Thankfully we have a much more enlightened approach at Napier City Council now. I’m seeing a sea change in how they approach their role in urban planning and design. What the grand plan is doing is seeking to mitigate their discharges into the Estuary – whole of Pandora – put storm water into Lagoon Farm and do water storage and wetlands … mop up sediments and contaminants.

“No less than what was required on day one.”

The planner

Director of City Strategy at Napier City Council, Richard Munneke, has been in the job three years. Previously he was regulatory manager with Horizons Regional Council.

“The city is built in such a way that since the earthquake (1931) most of the storm water goes into the Estuary. Back in the day it was a fine idea, but we know a lot more today, and wouldn’t do that again.

“Estuaries are complex environments and their flushing is very different from the open sea – very slow – so whatever contaminants are there hang around, so I think it’s important to acknowledge that. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what it is, and we can’t change the orientation of all the pipes so they all go out to sea. We have to make the most of what we’ve got, which is, how do we manage the storm water into the Estuary?

“We’re looking into creating wetlands for the residential component, designed to treat contaminants you want to settle out. It’s complicated engineering. You want heavy metals to fall out before they go into the Estuary, and they can be dug out and removed. We haven’t done the design yet. We’re at the stage of recognising the need and in consultation. The plan has gone through extensive consultation, and is now at stage of knowing what community most want advanced.

“The April (sewage) discharge was a rain event, and the option was we either flood people’s houses with waste, or we discharge at a highly diluted rate. Every city has only so much capacity with severe rain events. The problem is the sewer pipes are not perfectly sealed and the ground water infiltrates the pipes (under pressure). It’s mostly water but it has got faeces in there.

“History has not done us any favours. We allowed heavy industry in the area of most sensitivity because it was an easy dumping ground. Think of the old freezing works – the rivers used to run red. It’s complex and expensive to relocate industry. They’re doing their best with on-site (containment) and we’re doing our best to manage the situation.

“We have a working party – the Thames/Tyne Working Group – led by (Napier) Council, which has good dialogue with industry. Communication and transparency is fundamental. We need to have it with every one, and industry has come to the party, each having environmental management plans.

“We can make land value an incentive for industry to relocate. It’s a softer and smarter approach than enforcement. We have to have the discussion and ask, ‘Is this where Napier wants to keep its industry?”

The scientist

Anna Madarasz-Smith is Senior Scientist-Coastal Quality at Hawke’s Bay Regional Council. She holds a Master of Science in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography.

“Previously the Estuary was a marine lagoon of over 3,800 hectares. Farthest inland, near the Esk River inlet there were fresh water mussels, eels, fresh water fish. At the sea end were paua, crayfish, mussels, and sea fish – everything you’d associate with a marine environment.

“When the earthquake hit in February 1931 the lagoon rose by one to two metres, exposing about one-third of the inter-tidal platform.

“However, what we see today is not so much a result of the earthquake, but the result of drainage, diversion, and reclamation. About one-tenth of the original Estuary remains – around 470 hectares. Most of the farmland around the Estuary is at or below sea level and water has to be constantly pumped from the land for it to be useable.

“Despite extensive modification, the estuary has maintained a number of it’s values.

“Around 29 species of fish use the area at some time of their life cycle. Some, like kahawai, parore, stargazer, come for feeding, and around 11 species also use the area as a nursery or spawning ground. These include commercially important species like flounder, grey mullet, and sole.

“And the Estuary also provides feeding for around 20 species of trans-equatorial migrant birds … waders and terns … six Australian species … herons, ibises and ducks … and several native species, including white heron and royal spoonbill.

“Probably the best known equatorial migrant is the bar-tailed godwit. It’s a tiny little bird and flies non-stop all the way from Alaska (12,000 kilometres) and takes nine days. When it arrives it needs to eat to regain its weight. If it can’t eat it dies. And a massive problem we have is dogs disturbing them from feeding. They’re amazing little birds. They actually internalise their organs – the organs shrink in size – so they can put enough fat on for the return flight to Alaska.

“But the Estuary ecosystem is becoming increasingly stressed, and just like humans, when too stressed, disease and ill-health can be the result.

“Most of the pressure on the Estuary is not coming from the ocean, but from the land use in the catchment beside it.

“In the upper Ahuriri particularly, we have a major toxic sediment problem. It’s the black muddy gluginess you see, and is caused by too many nutrients coming into the system.

“An Estuary in a natural state will be mostly sands, quite aerated, and less than 10% mud in sediments – a relatively healthy system. Once you hit 25% we’re looking at a sediment-stressed system. In places at the top of Ahuriri Estuary we’re completely infilled with 96% mud.

“We’ve also got a massive problem with an invasive tube worm, ficopomatus enigmaticus. It’s been in the estuary since around 1990 and hasn’t been a problem. For some reason in the last five years it’s absolutely exploded. Algae blooms are a problem too. We sent a sample to the Cawthron Institute for analysis and it had the highest biomass they’d ever seen.

“We’ve been monitoring – taking samples – in the estuary for 10 years now and the water quality has deteriorated and is getting worse.

“How can we improve things? “We have to come up with an integrated management plan with a shared vision. The process has started with the statutory management committee, we’re working with Hohepa on wetland restoration, and we’re removing the worm in stages. Farm nutrient management programmes are being implemented, and a riparian planting programme initiated.

“Yes, there is hope, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The protector

Hans Rook began his career in the Wildlife Service over 45 years ago (Department of Conservation). He is an internationally recognised expert in wetland restoration and passionate about protecting the critically endangered bittern/matuku.

“We’re sitting on around 750 to 800 birds nationally, maybe less, because the Whangamarino (Waikato) population has crashed. We’ve probably got more than Australia because their population isn’t doing too well, and they’re gone from New Caledonia.

“Bittern were self introduced. They flew across the Tassie thousands of years ago and people think because they’re Australian immigrants they’re not as valued as native species. Probably the underarm bowling incident still at play.

“We started actively protecting the matuku in 2011, and we’ve got eight booming territories on the whole (Te Whanga) complex. That includes wetlands on farmers’ land who are doing great work, like Ginny and Lloyd Cave, and Philip Holt.

“During breeding time the males boom. They’re very elusive so that’s how we count numbers. We reckon there are five or six females. It’s the females who do the raising of chicks. One of the chicks from three years ago was heard (booming) in the Taipo (stream) and we haven’t seen or heard birds there for two decades, so we know it’s working.

“When I started my career, matuku weren’t common, but they weren’t rare either. They copped it because they’ve got quite short legs and their habitat in the shallow wetlands got belted first with drainage … it was the cheapest and easiest to drain. At the Balance Farm Environment Awards I asked an audience of around 200 East Coast farmers how many had seen or heard a bittern, and only four or five put up their hands.

“Matuku feed on a variety of things, including frogs and tadpoles, even baby rats, and if you want to find where inanga, adult whitebait, spawn, the matuku will show you.

“The habitat I’m working on is ideal for bittern, and people say to me, ‘We should open it up so people can get an appreciation for the birds”.

“I say, ‘No we don’t, because if we do, it’s all over rover.’

“There’s talk of putting in a cycleway up the top of the Estuary. If they do that it’ll be the end. We’ve got miles and miles of stopbanks in Hawke’s Bay, which are ideal, and I support cycleways, but they have to be in the right place. They are not compatible with a sanctuary.

“We have to be so careful with Te Whanga that we don’t love it to death.”

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