Wetlands and prohibited activity status: too blunt an instrument?

To help curb the scale and rate of wetland loss and degradation in New Zealand, the level of legal protection for wetlands has been elevated through the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM, MfE, 2020a) and the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater (NES-FW, MfE 2020b). Wetland Delineation Protocols (WDP) have also been developed (MfE, 2020c) to help identify wetlands and their extent.

These instruments aim to ensure that there is no further loss of extent of natural inland wetlands, their values are protected, and their restoration is promoted, whilst giving effect to the fundamental concept of Te Mana o te Wai.

While we fully support these aims, our experience as practitioners suggests a level of discord between these expressed ecological outcomes and those likely to be achieved in practice.

This paper examines whether the blanket prohibition in the NES-FW of certain activities across all wetland types and values is justified from an ecological perspective.

We conclude that some aspects of the NES-FW and NPS-FM will generally improve wetland protection. However, in some instances, national policy can also create significant challenges and uncertainty, at times not defendable on ecological grounds and, as highlighted by others, may even generate perverse ecological outcomes (Minhinnick and Atkins, 2021).

We suggest that sound ecological outcomes could be achieved by changing the prohibited status applied to certain activities to non-complying activity status. This would enable the significance of an effect on wetland extent and values to be assessed on its merits, while ensuring the bar remains high for ecological effects assessments and management.  We recommend a range of actions which should be developed to support this initiative. On balance, these measures would improve New Zealand’s wetland protection in practice and reduce the potential for perverse outcomes.

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  • Matt Baber, Principal Ecologist/ Director, Alliance Ecology Ltd
  • Justine Quinn, Technical Director, Freshwater Science & Ecology, Tonkin & Taylor Ltd
  • Josh Markham, Senior Ecologist/ Discipline Manager (Ecology), Tonkin & Taylor Ltd
  • Daniel Minhinnick, Partner, Environmental, Planning and Natural Resources, Russell McVeagh
  • Graham Ussher, Principal Ecologist/ Director, RMA Ecology Ltd
  • Marje Russ, Director, Strategic Consulting, Tonkin & Taylor Ltd