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  • Aotearoa is fortunate to have abundant freshwater systems. The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment reports the country has:

    • 70 major awa (river) systems that run for more than 425,000 kilometres
    • 249,776 hectares of repo (wetlands)
    • more than 50,000 roto (lakes) of which around 3,800 are larger than 1 hectare.

    As a nation, we value these systems. For Māori, tribal identity is linked to freshwater – each water body has its own mauri. The need to enhance and protect the mauri/health of our waterways is strongly felt, and an increasing amount of mahi is being done to address water quality issues for awa and repo.

    However, there’s been a gap in our knowledge about the state of our roto. Ecologists are aware that many lakes have undergone changes, but they lack the data to know how and why the lakes have changed and how best to restore them. Lakes380 is a collaborative research programme that aims to fill those gaps.

    Rights: Lakes380

    Introducing Lakes380

    Lakes380 is a 5-year project jointly led by GNS Science and Cawthron Institute. The aim is to obtain a nationwide health overview of 10% of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 3,800 lakes.

    Select here to view video transcript, discussion questions and copyright information.

    The largest scientific study of lakes in Aotearoa

    Lakes380 is the largest scientific study ever undertaken on lakes in Aotearoa. The programme, jointly led by GNS Science and Cawthron Institute, has sampled around 10% of the 3,800 lakes larger than 1 hectare. The project is underpinned by the whakataukī:

    Me hoki whakamuri kia haere whakamua.

    Current and future activity should be guided by lessons of the past.

    An understanding of how and why lakes have changed over the past 1,000 years will help ecologists understand future changes and inform protection and restoration efforts.

    Programme leaders Dr Marcus Vandergoes and Dr Susie Wood helped a team that selected the lakes for monitoring. Selection criteria included:

    • geographic spread across Te Ika-a-Māui North Island, Te Waipounamu South Island and Rēkohu Wharekauri Chatham Islands
    • altitude – a mix of coastal, lowland, highland and alpine areas
    • the presence of non-native species
    • catchment land cover.

    The Lakes380 team also sought guidance from iwi to sample roto that are culturally significant – but not those that are wāhi tapu. The team also consulted with regional councils, the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment to ensure that lakes prioritised for restoration or protection were included.

    Rights: Lakes380

    Weaving knowledge

    Professor Rewi Newnham discusses some of the different methodologies that underpin conventional science and mātauranga Māori. He notes that, when the two knowledge streams weave together, one enhances the other.

    Select here to view video transcript, jargon alert, discussion questions and copyright information.

    A unique approach

    The Lakes380 programme draws on both scientific and mātauranga Māori knowledge systems. While teams have been collecting and analysing water and sediment samples, they have also been working with iwi and hapū to understand and learn from their mātauranga and oral histories.

    They’ve partnered with iwi in four locations to examine the cultural and environmental histories of significant roto:

    • In partnership with Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Rangitāne o Wairarapa, the team produced the Wairarapa Moana Kete Pūrākau – a digital storytelling portal. This collection of stories comprises diverse personal memories, cultural knowledge and scientific information that enriches our understanding of lakes in this rohe.
    • Working with Rangitīkei iwi, the team produced a documentary, Whakahokia te mauri o Oporoa, which weaves cultural knowledge and scientific data, allowing the story of Lake Oporoa and aspirations for its future to be heard.
    • In partnership with Ngāti Koata and the Department of Conservation, the team developed a virtual reality experience for Lake Moawhitu (Rangitoto ki te Tonga D’Urville Island). This is informed by mātauranga Māori and science data, allowing viewers to see how the lake, landscape and human interactions have changed over 1,000 years.
    • The team also produced Te Pātaka Kai o Tūwiriroa, a 30-minute film, in partnership with Te Rūnaka o Ōtākou. The film highlights the importance of a series of coastal lakes to Kāi Tahu and focuses on their restoration.

    We take the view that we shouldn’t treat ecosystems like museums – they possess their own life force (mauri) which interacts with the world around them, and so we encourage communities to consider their history with the lake and their values relating to it and develop restoration goals on that basis.

    Russleigh Parai, Kaupapa Māori scientist, Lakes380

    Documenting the present while exploring the past

    The Lakes380 science team is looking at lake health as it is now – using water samples and surface sediment samples to measure water quality and biodiversity (organisms living in the lake).

    Rights: Crown copyright, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Collecting samples from a lake

    Fieldwork requires a lot of planning and gear, including two 4WD vehicles loaded with equipment and two boats. It takes the Lakes380 team 2–5 hours to sample each lake. Some of the lakes are remote and may require the use of helicopters. The journey back to the lab also requires planning – care has to be taken to keep the samples chilled and intact.

    Image from Lake Heron video, courtesy of Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future.

    The team is also investigating lake health as it used to be – using sediment cores. These are tubes of mud that are carefully extracted from the lake so that the layers that have built up year after year remain intact. Everything that happens in or around a lake leaves a trace in the sediment.

    Lake sediments are natural archives that continuously record environmental history, providing measures of current and historical aquatic ecosystems and water quality. The Lakes380 team use these sediment cores to explore historical shifts in lake health and this is equivalent to centuries of environmental monitoring. Because we are capturing 1000 years of lake history with each core, we are gaining incredible amounts of new knowledge about how and why our lakes have changed over time.

    Dr Marcus Vandergoes, Lakes380 programme co-leader

    It may seem unusual that looking back in time helps scientists learn how to protect or restore lakes into the future. Techniques like eDNA, high-resolution scanning and carbon dating provide clues to what lake catchments looked like before humans arrived in Aotearoa and how things have changed over time. For example, the image below shows changes to Horseshoe Lake in Hawke’s Bay. Pollen from the sediment core shows that, prior to human settlement, the lake was surrounded by lush native forests. Some of the forest was cleared by Māori, with a steady decline after European settlement. Horseshoe Lake is a wildlife reserve that is being restored. Evidence from the core indicates restoration plantings should include podocarps like mataī, rimu and kahikatea.

    Rights: Crown copyright, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Evidence from a lake sediment core

    Paleoecologists are able to ‘read’ the past from evidence found in lake sediment cores. Pollen from bracken fern is associated with clearing forested land. Pollen from grasses and pine is associated with pastures and plantation forests. Pollen, charcoal and algae levels show the impacts humans have had on lake ecosystems.

    Image courtesy of Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future.

    Building research methods and national datasets

    The Lakes380 science team is developing new methods to assess lake health from surface sediments. These new methods are being used to investigate changes due to natural and human disturbances to forecast how lakes might respond to climate change and to understand what causes a lake to change from a healthy condition to an unhealthy one.

    The team is also creating samples and datasets of lake cores, water and sediment samples they’ve collected from the lakes and metadata (other information like catchment land use and lake depth) for the lakes they’re studying. The samples and datasets will become public resources for both Aotearoa and the global scientific community.

    Nature of science

    The successful restoration of water quality for freshwater systems in Aotearoa can require costly, long-term approaches. Using evidence that documents a lake’s original condition and when and why changes occurred will help in setting realistic restoration aspirations.

    Related content

    Science, mātauranga Māori and social sciences are interwoven throughout the Lakes380 programme. The article Lakes380 – a context for learning includes key concepts, curriculum links and additional pedagogical help.

    Waitī – freshwater environments looks at our connections to freshwater and how we are impacted by the degraded state of many of our freshwater environments.

    Consider the impacts humans have on freshwater systems with Humans and the water cycle.

    Aotearoa has abundant freshwater resources. The Hub has an abundance of freshwater resources too. We’ve got them organised in this handy interactive, complete with a PLD article to get you started!

    Activity ideas

    The following activities use data and media from the Lakes380 programme:

    Useful links

    Visit the Lakes380 website to find information about:

    Visit Our Lakes, Our Future for videos and audio recordings that share cultural knowledge and ecological research about our lakes.

    Visit He reo nō te puehu – A voice from the dust to experience Lake Moawhitu as it once was, as it is now and what it has the potential to become.

    Visit the Lakes380 lake core database.


    This resource has been developed in collaboration with Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future (C05X1707), Cawthron Institute and GNS Science.

    Rights: Crown Copyright, Cawthron Institute and GNS Science

    Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future

    Lakes380 is a national project to gain in-depth understanding of the current and historical health of lakes in Aotearoa New Zealand. The project was co-led by GNS Science and Cawthron Institute and funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (C05X1707;

      Published 9 February 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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