Recovering degraded streams and rivers

  •  BioHeritage researchers Catherine Febria and Elizabeth Graham sample a degraded waterway in lowland Canterbury.

    BioHeritage researchers Catherine Febria and Elizabeth Graham sample a degraded waterway in lowland Canterbury.

Researchers are using freshwater systems as a model to test how degraded ecosystems can be resistant to disruptions – including those that aim to restore them.

Many Aotearoa New Zealand freshwater ecosystems are degraded to the point that restoration is very difficult, or in other words they are resilient in an unhealthy way.

This BioHeritage Challenge project, led by doctors Helen Warburton and Catherine Febria of the University of Canterbury UC) focuses on developing and testing a restoration framework for overcoming negative resistance and resilience in degraded freshwater communities.

Two elements they are focusing on are:

  • identifying key characteristics that need to be present in freshwater communities to move waterways to a healthy state
  • investigating what community of species work best together to overcome unhealthy resilience in waterways.

By investigating and understanding what attributes make freshwater ecosystems “unhealthy”, place-based trials can be designed to target undesired species. They can also be tailored to restore processes and support attributes that would nurture desired species, for example taonga (treasured) and mahinga kai (food-gathering source) species. In this way, the project is informing a more holistic approach to freshwater restoration.

A critical focus is gathering freshwater knowledge from those with wide-ranging expertise across Aotearoa. Another key aspect is building meaningful relationships with local iwi and rūnanga who have mana whenua (territorial rights) over waterways that may serve as ideal experimental sites.

Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) is essential to the team’s research, given that healthy, resilient freshwater ecosystems are traditional mahinga kai for local iwi, and that holistically restoring healthy functioning ecosystems is the ultimate goal. This ties in with the Challenge's commitment to Vision Mātauranga.

This project contributes to the BioHeritage Challenge’s goal of restoring New Zealand’s healthy freshwater.

Since 2014, project researchers and farmers have drawn on aligned projects such as the Canterbury Waterway Rehabilitation Experiment (CAREX) and have collaborated with industry, councils, central government, schools and iwi to communicate the science and lessons learned from freshwater restoration trials.

A particularly meaningful connection has been with tamariki (children) and rangatahi (youth) to show them real-world examples of collaborations in restoration taking place across their rohe (region).

A tamariki day with Te Taumutu Rūnanga was held by CAREX in 2017, where whānau sampled and explored a 15-year-old wetland restoration site in the catchment of Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) to learn first-hand about wetland and freshwater biodiversity.

In November 2017, the project team ran a freshwater traits workshop in Hamilton, where local and national knowledge-holders, science experts and end-users agreed on basic traits common in aquatic plants, invertebrates, fish and other species living in New Zealand freshwater communities.

This laid the foundation for a shared database and a greater collaboration across a range of organisations on the topic of freshwater biodiversity.

The project team continues to engage with communities, including local mana whenua, in the co-design of their stream restoration projects.

The national Kindness in Science movement is supported by this project – Dr Catherine Febria is one of the co-founders of this online community that focuses on offering a more inclusive approach to science.

BioHeritage’s role is to break down barriers between organisations and individual scientists by coordinating and focusing the research of top scientists from our 18 Challenge Parties.

This project is being driven by Challenge Party the University of Canterbury (UC), with help from UC's Freshwater Ecology Research Group, NIWA and Environment Canterbury.

The team: Catherine Febria, Helen Warburton Elizabeth Graham, Jon Harding and Angus McIntosh.

The team, clockwise from top left: Elizabeth Graham, Helen Warburton, Catherine Febria, Angus McIntosh and Jon Harding.

Re-building healthy rivers

Nine To Noon,26 January 2017

Freshwater ecologist Dr Catherine Febria, talks to Kathryn Ryan about boosting healthy resilience in polluted rivers.

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Shallow water. Image - Tom Fraser
Freshwater traits workshop

1 January 2018 - Whats new

A national workshop on freshwater traits for New Zealand was organised to discuss how traits are currently being…


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