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Exploring the health of New Zealand's lakes

Many of New Zealand’s lakes are deteriorating in health, yet our ability to make informed assessments at a national level is constrained by a lack of critical knowledge about our lakes’ current and historic health. Of the country’s 3800 lakes, we currently have scientific knowledge for fewer than five percent.

The Lakes380 team taking core samples of lake-bed sediment. Photo: Cawthron Institute

The Lakes380 team taking core samples of lake-bed sediment. Photo: Cawthron Institute

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“The knowledge gained will help us implement the best systems we can to protect our unique biodiversity, manage our biosecurity and enhance our relationship with these precious tāonga.”

Harry Burkhardt, Ngāti Kuri Trust Chairman

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To help address this knowledge gap, researchers from GNS Science and the Cawthron Institute are leading a five-year collaborative project to scientifically characterise the health of 10% of New Zealand’s lakes. 

Called ‘Lakes380: Our lakes’ health — past, present, future’, the project is the biggest scientific study of New Zealand’s lakes ever undertaken. It relies on strong research partnerships with Victoria University, University of Otago, Waka Taurua Ltd, Matana Consulting, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, The University of Auckland, more than 10 international organisations, and iwi around the country. The project combines biophysical and social sciences expertise with mātauranga Māori knowledge. 

In addition to characterising present biodiversity and water quality, the team is exploring how and why the lakes have changed over the past 1000 years by collecting and analysing sediment cores. Sediment in a lake is laid down year-byyear. Layers preserved in the cores are like pages of a history book that record environmental change, weather events, vegetation changes and human impacts. They extend our knowledge over centuries, well beyond the instrumental era.

Data from the sediment cores and other samples collected will be interwoven with mātauranga Māori to provide a richer understanding about the value and health of New Zealand’s lakes, as well as the impact of natural and human activity. In each study region, the project team is working with iwi and hapū to learn from their mātauranga and oral histories that draw upon long associations with the lakes. This sharing of mātauranga will help enrich and inform joint aspirations for protection and restoration. 

The team has so far sampled more than 100 lakes including those at the northernmost tip of New Zealand. In June 2019 the Lakes380 team partnered with Ngāti Kuri to sample five lakes in Northland which have high cultural significance and were important sites for mahinga kai (traditional food gathering). 

The knowledge gathered will be used to help predict future changes and ensure protection and restoration efforts nationally are culturally and ecologically appropriate. The project is a great example of how we work with local communities and how our science can make a real difference. 

Lakes380 is funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund.