Coastal and Freshwater news

When it comes to freshwater health reporting, are we measuring the right things?
12 July 2016

Cawthron Foundation funds health check of freshwater reporting

When it comes to knowing how healthy something is, making sure we are measuring the right things and asking the right questions is vital – whether it’s for our own health or our environment's.

New research by Cawthron Institute aims to determine if scientists and regulators are measuring the right things when it comes to the health of New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and streams.

The research is funded by Cawthron Foundation through its bequest programme. It will be carried out by a team of freshwater ecologists, social scientists, and policy analysts, and led by Cawthron Institute’s Dr Roger Young – a highly-regarded freshwater ecologist and advisor on freshwater issues throughout New Zealand.

“The health of New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems is under threat from agricultural intensification, urban development, water abstraction, invasive species and climate change,” Dr Young says.

“There’s considerable public interest and concern relating to these threats. There is also a lot of debate, concern and confusion around what the different indicators of freshwater health mean, how they link with community values, and how to determine what a ‘healthy waterway’ is.

"This research is a step towards addressing those concerns by ensuring the things New Zealanders care about are included in the measurement and reporting of freshwater health in New Zealand.”

"Important values such as mahinga kai and fishery health are not well represented by any indicators commonly used for assessment and reporting on freshwater health." – Dr Roger Young.

It is the first research funded by Cawthron Foundation, a charitable trust launched in 2015 to raise donations, bequests and endowments for public good science, as well as scholarships to support talented emerging scientists. Cawthron Foundation hopes this piece of research is the first of many it will fund to address pressing environmental issues

“New Zealanders are passionate about their rivers, lakes and streams and many see the ability to swim and fish as an iconic part of being a New Zealander,” Cawthron Foundation Chair Dr Morgan Williams says. “This research was made possible thanks to the generosity of our donors who share the sort of interest in practical science that inspired Thomas Cawthron to set up the Institute 100 years ago. It is an excellent example of the type of science we need to help solve New Zealand’s leading environmental challenges.”

Kathryn Ryan interviews Dr Morgan Williams on Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon (2015)

New Zealand’s National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) requires regional councils and communities to develop plans that identify freshwater objectives and set limits to achieve them. A range of ecological health and water quality indicators are regularly used by regional councils and others to assess the health of waterways.

Dr Young says that while some of these indicators have been specified as compulsory attributes in the NPS-FM, others have not yet been included. He says that while there’s a strong focus on water quality, some important values such as mahinga kai and fishery health are not well represented by any indicators commonly used for assessment and reporting on freshwater health.

“Overall, we’re supportive of the efforts underway to improve freshwater management. This independent analysis is intended to complement further development of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management,” Dr Young says.

“Our aim is to address some gaps we’ve identified and provide the public with easily understandable, robust scientific information so they can be fully informed on this important issue and become actively engaged in the debate.”

Rainbow River Valley, St Arnaud is an important trout and salmon spawning area. 

The ‘Analysis of Freshwater Indicators’ will:

  •  Investigate strengths and weakness of common indicators used in freshwater policy and management
  •  Compare New Zealand’s approach with international trends in the use and development of freshwater indicators
  •  Identify community objectives that are poorly represented by any of the commonly used indicators
  •  Recommend potential changes to the NPS-FM

Cawthron Institute will publish a peer-reviewed report on the analysis, and a short video on key findings. The work is expected to be completed by December this year.

Get involved and make a difference

Find out how you can support more important research like this at Cawthron Foundation.