The Kaipara is the largest harbour in the Southern Hemisphere and meets many of the criteria set down by the Ramsar Convention.
Ramsar Convention approved sites in New Zealand include Farewell Spit and the Miranda Coast on the Firth of Thames. Both these sites meet several criteria of the Ramsar Convention, but the most significant, is their importance as feeding and roosting grounds to thousands of migratory wading birds each year. Other Ramsar sites already approved in New Zealandinclude the Whangamarino Wetlands, Kopuatai Peat Dome (Hauraki Plains), the Waituna Lagoon (Southland), and most recently, the Manawatu River Estuary.
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, was first established in Ramsar, a village in Iran in 1971. It identifies wetlands of international importance. The vision of the contracting parties is:
"To develop and maintain an international network of wetlands which are important for the conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life through the ecological and hydrological functions they perform."
Potential sites from around the world have to meet criteria set down by the Ramsar Convention contracting parties and apply to become a Ramsar approved wetland site. One of the most significant of these is the number of wading birds, both national and international, that visit the site.
The Kaipara Harbour is well qualified on this criterion - more than 30,000 birds migrate to the Kaipara Harbour each year to feed and roost. The Kaipara Harbour is an important destination on the East-Asian Flyway, used by waders migrating between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres each season.
Most of the sites of high ecological importance are in the central and southern Kaipara. These include marine habitats, and coastal areas such as wetlands, salt marsh and wader sites, in areas such as Manukapua (Big Sand Island), Papakanui Spit, Waionui Inlet, and Omokoiti.
Criterion Six of the Convention states that a wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports one percent of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.
The Kaipara Harbour supports about 18 per cent of all Bar-tailed Godwits, 16 per cent of Knots, and more than one percent of Turnstones, Pacific Golden Plover, Far-eastern Curlew, Whimrel, New Zealand endemic Fairy Tern, Wrybill, Pied Oystercatcher, Variable Oystercatcher, Banded Dotterel, Pied Stilt, and Caspian Tern.
Sustainable use is one of the founding tenets of Ramsar Convention. Here is a quote from the Ramsar documents:
"Under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the two concepts of wise use and site designation are fully compatible and mutually reinforcing. Ramsar COP3 in 1987 defined wise use of wetlands as their "sustainable utilisation for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem."
Kaipara Forest and Bird supports the goal of sustainability for the Kaipara Harbour. We are not just interested in protecting the harbour habitat for the birds, although that is a high priority. The Kaipara Harbour is a pristine and peaceful environment as well as a highly valued recreation area. It includes a commercial fishery that is already under stress from phytoplankton depletion. It is an important feeding ground for marine mammals - orca and dolphins are often seen in the Harbour - as well as an internationally significant roosting and feeding area for migratory birds.
An appropriate form of tourism is an example of a sustainable use for the Kaipara Harbour that can benefit local iwi and local communities. "Eco-cultural tourism", or what the National Geographic Society calls ‘Geotourism’, is being adopted in a number of significant tourism strategies around the world, including most recently the Cook Islands. This type of tourism values the local environment, the local culture, the local history, and local arts and crafts.
Ramsar status for the Kaipara will not lock up these resources, but will allow and encourage sustainable development such as Geotourism. Ramsar endorses this type of culturally appropriate and environmentally sensitive development that benefits the tangata whenua.
Words & photo by Suzi Phillips