Wild Rivers: The Hurunui

Canterbury's Hurunui river provides an outstanding habitat for native fish and birds, especially our nationally endangered black-fronted tern, black-billed gull and dotterel (in decline). It is under threat from both irrigation and hydro-electric schemes.

Where is the Hurunui?

The Hurunui river

The Hurunui river

Northwest of Christchurch, the Hurunui gathers the mighty headwaters of the eastern Southern Alps, and flows through gorges and lakes, winding its way for 200 kilometres to the sea.


Why’s it so special?

A resident of the Hurunui river - the banded dotterel. 

The Hurunui is Canterbury’s sixth largest river by volume. Lake Sumner and seven smaller lakes formed by retreating glaciers are considered icons of the South Island high country.

As well as being one of Canterbury’s most loved rivers, it is also home to some of our most endangered species, such as our black fronted tern.It is one of the most popular rivers in New Zealand for fishing, white-water rafting and kayaking.

It is an example of one of the most diverse river catchments in Canterbury, ranging from bush-fringed lakes, steep, rocky headwaters and gorges to braided shingle riverbeds, and supports an equally diverse range of habitats and native biodiversity.

Fifty-eight bird species have been identified in the catchment, including 17 threatened species. Significant river birds include three nationally endangered species: the black-fronted tern (between 5-12% of the entire population), black-billed gull (in serious decline) and banded dotterel (in gradual decline). The catchment is also home to birds uncommon in most of Canterbury, especially grey teal and NZ shoveler.

Twenty-five native fish species have been identified in the catchment, including six threatened fish species. It is also an important recreational fishery for brown trout and salmon, with an estimated 20,000 angler days per season.

The surrounding beech forest supports a healthy population of endangered mohua (yellowhead) and critically endangered orange-fronted parakeet (kakariki).

What’s happening?

Over the past twelve years, there have been several applications by irrigators and power companies to dam this beautiful river to generate electricity and store irrigation water.

One recent application was to dam both the Hurunui South Branch and Lake Sumner, both scenic and ecological gems. Due to the high level of public opposition to these proposals,  the applicants have since shifted their attention to a tributary, the Waitohi, in the mid-reaches of the Hurunui catchment.

This proposal is likely to be less damaging overall than dams in the upper catchment. 

In 2013, Forest and Bird sought complete protection for the Upper Hurunui catchment through the Hurunui and Waiau River Regional Plan.