Partnerships for healthy estuaries

PROFESSOR MURRAY PATTERSON - School of People, Environment and Planning

Coastal ecosystems are incredibly important, but they are adversely affected by changes in land use. A Massey University project looks at empowering iwi and hapū to be strong partners in the co-management of healthy estuaries.

Coastal ecosystems are home to many species of fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife, some of which are endangered. Estuaries in particular are fundamental to the breeding and feeding habits of these species.

Unfortunately, land-use changes such as clearing trees for farming or urban development has increased sediment levels in waterways that drain into estuaries. Extra sediment and nutrients in estuaries leaves the water murky, which reduces the amount of light that filters through to fish and plants. Increased nutrients can also lead to algal blooms, which impact negatively on other wildlife in the ecosystem.

Professor Murray Patterson from the School of People, Environment and Planning, who holds the Chair in Ecological Economics at Massey University, is leading a project that focuses on empowering iwi and hapū to be strong partners in the co-management of estuaries in the Tauranga harbour. The project looks to benefit the community and wider New Zealand through improved knowledge of estuarine ecosystem health, resilience and function.

The project involves collecting an oral history of local iwi and hapū knowledge, including indicators of estuarine ecosystem health and functioning, and developing a new hybrid geographic information systems model that integrates environmental, economic, cultural, land-use and estuarine ecology information.

Involvement in a project like this will enhance mana for the participating iwi and hapū, which is an outcome that is beyond quantification.


Mātauranga Māori

The four-year research project has three phases, the first of which will focus on gathering mātauranga Māori (a body of knowledge of Māori experience in the area) from local iwi and hapū. The team will firstly create an Estuarine Cultural Health Index (ECHI), a toolkit which will allow local people to assess the state of local estuarine habitats, record changes over time and help judge the effectiveness of local fishing rules and management strategies. Secondly, they will undertake an oral history critical inquiry of local iwi and hapū.

Phase two will consolidate the ecological knowledge of the Tauranga harbour and begin to provide some modelling and indicators of estuarine ecosystem health, resilience and functioning, which will be used in the Integrative Spatial Planning Tool (ISPT) that will be created in the final stage. This tool is a hybrid GIS (Geographic Information System)-modelling system that will use information from the estuarine ecology, land use, economic and cultural areas. The ISPT will increase the evidence base for planning around estuaries instead of the inconsistent methods currently used. A world first, it will enable the team to evaluate future planning options for the Tauranga harbour.

“This tool will significantly improve quantitative analyses of ecological problems and solutions for estuaries,” Professor Patterson says. “For example, we estimate that estuarine sea-grass restoration will increase ecosystem services value in Tauranga harbour by $135 million per annum after 10 years.

“We’re also strengthening our connections with tangata whenua. Involvement in a project like this will enhance mana for the participating iwi and hapū, which is an outcome that is beyond quantification.”

With these tools, and the knowledge from and partnership with local iwi, it is hoped that the project will lead to a well-managed and healthy estuarine ecosystem. Establishing a practical process through this project will also allow co-management partnerships to emerge around the country, and better plans and policies for estuary ecosystems throughout New Zealand.

Project details

Funders Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment


  • Manaaki Te Awanui Trust
  • Cawthron Institute
  • University of Waikato
  • WakaDigital
  • Market Economics
  • Bremen University, Germany

Dates 2015 to 2019