Why wetlands are important

Wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and associated plant and animal life.

They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land, or where the land is permanently or temporarily covered by water. They come in many different guises, including streams, swamps, bogs, lakes, lagoons, estuaries, mudflats and flood plains.

Wetlands are among the world’s most productive environments. They are cradles of biological diversity, providing the water and primary productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival.

Many of these plants and animals have specially adapted to living in wet places.

Pekapeka wetland. Photo: Peter Kurdulija | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Pekapeka wetland in Hawke's Bay is wonderful restored with a number of walking trails

Historical importance

Wetlands were a treasure trove for early Maori, providing flax for clothing, mats, kits and ropes, raupo for thatching and dried moss for bedding.

The eels, fish and birds which lived there were a good food source and the feathers of birds like pukeko and bittern were used to adorn cloaks and other garments. Waterways were an important means of access by waka (canoe).

International significance

The international significance of wetlands is reflected in the Convention on Wetlands (the Ramsar Convention). An intergovernmental agreement adopted on 2 February 1971 for the conservation and wise use of wetlands. See DOC's role in the Ramsar Convention.

Economic recognition

Wetland in Lake Arthur Scenic Reserve. Photo: K Smith.
Wetland, Lake Arthur Scenic Reserve,
West Coast

The Ramsar Convention launched an international report on 1 February 2013: The Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity for Water and Wetlands.

The report states the need for a major shift in our attitudes towards wetlands. We need to recognise their value in delivering water, raw materials and food. They are essential both for life and the sustainability of the world's economies.

Flood control

Wetlands absorb heavy rain, releasing water gradually so flooding is reduced. Downstream water flows and ground water levels are also maintained during periods of low rainfall. Wetlands help stabilise shorelines and riverbanks.

Water quality

As water moves into a wetland, the flow rate decreases, allowing particles to settle out. Plant surfaces provide for filtration, absorption of solids and add oxygen to the water. Growing plants remove nutrients and play a cleansing role that protects the downstream environments.

Boardwalk, Pukepuke Lagoon.
Boardwalk, Pukepuke Lagoon

Recreation

Wetlands offer many recreation opportunities including boating, fishing, swimming, bird watching, whitebaiting and hunting.

Tourism and education

Wetlands support a wide diversity of species, in large numbers. Their popularity is proven by ample visitor numbers at places like Sinclair Wetland near Dunedin and the Miranda Shorebird Centre at the Firth of Thames. Arawai Kakariki sites (Awarua, O Tu Wharekai and Whangamarino) also attract lots of visitors.

Wetlands also offer many interesting education opportunities and DOC has produced a number of education kits for various wetlands.

Exceptional habitats

A huge range of plants and animals inhabit wetlands. Wetland plants include 47 species of rush and 72 species of native sedge. Many wetland plants have specific environmental needs and are extremely vulnerable to change. A number of our endangered plant species depend totally on wetlands.

Wetlands support great concentrations of bird life and far more species that a comparable forest area. Migratory species depend on chains of suitable wetlands. Threatened species such as the Australasian bittern, brown teal, fernbird, marsh crake and white heron rely on remnant wetlands for their survival.

A home for native fish

Eight of New Zealand’s 27 native fish species, including inanga, short-finned eels, kokopu and bullies, are found in wetlands, while the whitebait fishery depends on the spawning habitat offered by freshwater wetlands. The best whitebait runs are found on the South Island's West Coast, where extensive areas of forest and swamp remain. The decline in native fish populations is directly related to massive reductions in freshwater habitat.


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